2014 Toyota Prius Introduction

The Toyota Prius remains the world's best-selling hybrid. Worldwide, Toyota has sold more than three million copies since the late 1990s; half of them in the United States. The Prius positively dominates the hybrid category, accounting for 40 percent of all hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S.

Now in its third generation, the Toyota Prius has blossomed into a small family of fuel-efficient hybrids. In addition to the standard Liftback and its Plug-In variant reviewed here; Toyota also offers the smaller, city-friendly Prius c, and the wagon-like Prius v, which we have reviewed separately.

The biggest change for the 2014 model year is a significant price reduction for the Plug-In: from $32,000 to $29,990 for the base Plug-In, and from $39,525 to $34,905 for the better-equipped Plug-In Advanced. Prices for other Prius models remain unchanged.

Both the Liftback and the Plug-in use Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, which pairs a 1.8-liter gasoline engine along with an electric motor. The regular Prius Liftback uses nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries and operates like a traditional hybrid.

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid employs lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and can be plugged in like an electric car to extend its range. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will allow true electric-vehicle operation for up to 15 miles at speeds up to 62 mph, according to Toyota, along with quick home charging using a standard AC outlet and 15-amp dedicated circuit. The Plug-in Hybrid comes with an easy-to-use external charging cable, but you'll want an electrician to set up a dedicated fast-charger for the quickest charge times.

Fuel economy is the number one reason to buy a Prius. The Prius Liftback gets an EPA-rated 51/48 mpg City/Highway, and a combined rating of 50 mpg. It runs on Regular gasoline.

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid is rated 51/49 mpg City/Highway, or 50 mpg Combined. Because it also runs on electricity, the Environmental Protection Agency gives it a special rating of 95 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). The Federal government's 2014 fuel cost estimates are $850 a year for the Prius Plug-In, compared to $950 for the traditional Prius.

While fuel economy is remarkable, acceleration performance from the Prius is far from it: 0 to 60 mph in an excruciating 9.8 seconds. (Well, excruciating according to the latest fashion; not so long ago, zero-to-60 in less than 10 seconds would have been considered pretty snappy.) On the bright side, the continuously variable transmission (CVT), is smooth, a quality not always found in this type of transmission.

Prius comes loaded with technology. The Touch Tracer Display projects information before your eyes, so you can keep them on the road. A solar-powered ventilation system is available, with remote pre-cooling to cool the car down to ambient temperature before you climb in on a hot day. Other features include lane departure warning, radar cruise control and Intelligent Parking Assist, which will automatically parallel park the vehicle.

The Prius is capable of seating five, but the ride will be most comfortable with only four. Front seats are roomy, though some may find the upright seating position a bit uncomfortable. In the back, there's am adequate 36 inches of legroom. The EPA classifies these cars as midsize, but we see them as large compacts.

Cargo space is generous with nearly 40 cubic feet of capacity when the back seats are dropped flat, and the big liftgate makes loading easy.

While the Prius continues to dominate the hybrid market, other alternative fuel vehicles have sprung up in recent years to give Toyota's darling a run for its money. The Ford C-Max, available as both a hybrid and a plug-in, boasts a fresher design and sharper driving dynamics. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in feels more sophisticated and more upscale than the Prius does. Shoppers might also consider the sleek Ford Fusion hybrid and plug-in sedans, as well as the Toyota Camry hybrid.

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