by Frank A. Aukofer

Although it continues to be a pokey performer against most other passenger cars, the 2017 Toyota Prius hybrid sparkles on ride and handling, safety, comfort and—most important to its buyers—fuel economy.

It is the most successful hybrid in history with more than 1.7 million sold in the United States since 1999. In 2016, sales totaled 136,632, down from 184,794 in 2015 as low gasoline prices prompted buyers to gravitate toward pickup trucks and more fuel-hungry automobiles.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_02_54CECFE89DE5799B719C2EAF21ECC6C6629C98A8Manufacturers, however, know that the price pendulum is likely to swing back, so they continue to develop more fuel efficient vehicles—from installing small displacement gasoline engines with improved power to developing more hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric and even hydrogen-fueled cars.

Though it had a major overhaul a year ago, the 2017 model adds notable improvements that make it the best Prius ever. For one thing, it has a new independent rear suspension system that noticeably delivers a better ride and handling.

It also comes standard with Toyota’s Safety Sense package that includes forward collision warning with emergency braking and pedestrian detection, lane departure mitigation, adaptive radar cruise control and automatic headlight high beams.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_01_AAF3DB5F2B355991BFED40260A08D0B3A9EFBED5Perhaps as important for anyone who has driven an earlier Prius with leisurely—some would say sluggish—acceleration, the tested 2017 Prius Three model comes with driver selectable motoring modes: Eco, Normal and Power.

Though the zero to 60 miles an hour acceleration time hovers around the 10-second mark — nothing to brag about — punching the Power button changes the Prius’s personality. When you press the accelerator pedal, it focuses all the power from the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and two electric motor-generators on getting a quick leap off the line.

The gear-driven continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) feels more connected as it sends the combined gasoline-electric 121 hp to the front wheels. Though you likely could get the same acceleration in the Eco or Normal modes if you floored the gas pedal, the Power mode feels faster without that effort.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_20_FEE01BFAD36558F540C52B796CBE1BF649CEFD85There are six trim levels: Prius Two; Two Eco; Three; Three Touring; and Four Touring. All arrive with the Toyota Safety Sense system as well as a rear-view camera, automatic climate control, keyless entry and starting, Bluetooth connectivity, voice recognition with Siri hands-free and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player.

The tested Three, with a base price of $27,600, also came with a wireless phone-charging pad, Toyota’s Entune infotainment system with a seven-inch touch screen, satellite and HD radio, and access to apps like Pandora and iHeart radio when paired with a smart phone.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_23_BE7056CC857683DB0C36C4741BE0034035103CEFWith options that included a motorized glass sunroof, color head-up display, navigation system and a cargo net, the tester had a sticker price of $30,186.

In a clever bit of engineering and styling, the Three combined alloy wheels with plastic wheel covers that looked as if they were part of the wheel itself.

Inside, the tested Prius featured white accents and an attractive as well as comfortable textured cloth upholstery. Cloth seating surfaces are always the choice here because they offer cool seating in the summer and warmth in the winter, obviating the need for such expensive add-ons as the heated and cooled seats needed for perforated leather upholstery.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_03_C1B3C5A53F5DE658B1632893021A0DC3BF624913With passenger space of 92 cubic feet and 25 cubic feet for cargo under the rear hatch — expandable to 66 cubic feet if the rear seatbacks are folded — the Prius Three is classified by the government as a midsize car. Up front, the seats are comfortable and supportive with enough manual adjustments, along with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, to accommodate almost any driver. There’s also ample space and comfort in the outboard back seats. The center-rear position is hampered by a small floor hump and a high, hard cushion — though it is usable for short trips.

Though the Prius is unlikely to be bested in popularity any time soon because of its enviable record of durability and reliability, other automakers have mounted serious challenges. One of the more formidable is the all-new Hyundai Ioniq. It is shorter by three inches than the Prius but boasts slightly more interior room — a large-car total of 123 cubic feet versus the Prius’s 117 cubic feet — the Ioniq delivers 139 combined horsepower and slightly better city/highway/combined fuel economy: 55/54/55 compared to the tested Prius’s 54/50/52. However, the Prius Eco model is rated at 58/53/56.

Specifications

  • Model: 2017 Toyota Prius Three hybrid four-door hatchback sedan.
  • Engine/Motors:8-liter four-cylinder gasoline, 95 hp, 105 lb-ft torque; two electric motor/generators; 121 hp combined. 0.7 kWh lithium-ion battery pack.
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 11 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 92/25 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,120 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 54/50/52 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $27,600.
  • Price as tested: $30,186.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2016_Toyota_Prius_Four_Touring_10_AAE9E5026F0118D0FD09E2B9C088B827F27B8471Photos (c) Toyota.