Toyota's new Prius may be the best argument yet for hybrids

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After I parked a new 2023 Toyota Prius and walked away, I turned around to look at it. Not because I was checking my parking job, but because it just looked so good. Turning around to look at a Prius is, seriously, something I never thought I would do.

The car’s sloping nose, low roof and sharply cornered back end resemble a sports car more than a flipped-over deviled egg like past Priuses. It’s a shape that’s clearly had a lot of time in wind tunnels but, with subtle bulges around the back wheels and hidden back door handles, it looks exciting rather than just serviceable.

Which is good because hybrids, regarded as cutting-edge when introduced decades ago, are now passé, often treated like the flip phones of electrified transportation. Even as electric vehicle sales have taken off and are expected to rise even more rapidly this year, hybrid vehicle market share has been relatively flat. Hybrid manufacturers could use the image make-over the Prius offers. And there’s more to it than just looks. The new Prius drives just as nicely, too.

Toyota's new Prius has a lower, sleeker design.

Within its strikingly different exterior design, the new Prius’s interior is more traditional than past models, but in a generally good way. There’s a large gauge screen behind the steering wheel, just where it is in most cars. And there’s a touchscreen for less driver-focused stuff in the middle. The gear selector is a nice size, a comfortable shape, easy to use without looking at it and it’s down low between the front seats in, again, a traditional and easy to reach location. (Yes, I became weirdly enthusiastic about the Prius’s gear selector which was one of my favorite in any car, ever.)

Driving the Prius is maybe not quite as exciting as looking at it, but it’s not bad at all. It feels good on the road, planted and balanced. Even its acceleration – a weak point in past Priuses – is quite good. According to Car and Driver, the new Prius can go from a stop to 60 miles an hour in 7.1 seconds. The all-wheel-drive Prius, with more traction and slightly more power, is probably a little quicker. This is vastly better than the 2022 Prius which took almost 11 seconds.

If it weren’t for the Prius’s sad, droning engine sound, which can be blamed on the car’s hyper-efficient transmission, I would have entirely enjoyed driving it. It’s also comfortable and, with its hatchback body style, practical. It also, of course, gets truly remarkable fuel economy. The all-wheeld-drive model I tested gets an EPA-estimated 54 miles a gallon while the front-wheel-drive model gets 57.

If anyone cares, it has a Sport Mode which makes the steering feel more responsive and changes the engine and electric motor operation to provide more power at the expense of fuel economy. I tried it but, to be honest, it felt a bit silly. The engine didn’t sound at all happy with that sort of work and the body leaned unpleasantly in hard turns. Anyway, driving a Prius in Sport mode is like going to a track meet in nurse’s clogs. The Prius is excellent in many ways and this just may not be one of them.

The new Prius's interior design is more "normal" than past models, but still attractive.

Toyota executives have, for years, made the case that hybrids can do more to reduce global warming, at least in the short term, than purely electric vehicles. That’s thanks to the fewer raw materials needed for a hybrid’s smaller battery over purely electric cars. But the argument may be partly self-serving, since Toyota has a lot of hybrids to sell and the brand’s biggest foray into electric vehicles so far, the BZ4X, has gotten tepid reviews, and was the subject of a particularly embarrassing recall as its wheels were coming off.

But there is logic to Toyota’s arguments. And they’re ones that some others in the industry, such as Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, have been making, as well.

It might sound counter-intuitive. How could hybrids, vehicles that burn gasoline, reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than vehicles that burn no gasoline at all?.

While electric vehicles don’t consume fuel, they can be seen as wasteful of other things, namely battery materials like lithium. Americans have proven reluctant to buy electric vehicles with less than 200 miles of driving range. But the average American drives less than 40 miles or so on a typical day. That means the majority of battery materials in a long-range electric car are there for, essentially, marketing. They’re not actually reducing CO2 emissions most of the time, because they’re just not being used at all.

What if, car companies like Toyota say, the batteries in one fully electric vehicle had been divided into 100 smaller battery packs and used to make 100 hybrid cars? Hybrids use their batteries a lot and, in the case of the new Prius, it’s a lithium-ion battery of the same sort used in fully electric vehicles. An electric motor drives the car at low speeds, or whenever only a little power is needed to move it, allowing the gas engine to be turned off much of the time. The batteries are then charged up again whenever the vehicle brakes or, if needed, by capturing a little extra power from the engine while the car is driving.

When used in a hybrid, battery material is actively driving real vehicles miles. reducing emissions rather than just acting as an inducement to buy an electric car, pointed out Jason Keller, Toyota’s director of dealer policy in the US.

Toyota hopes the new Prius's sharper looks and better appearance will attract new buyers.

There’s also the fact that, with their smaller batteries, hybrid cars are much less expensive to buy. Prices for the Toyota Prius, for instance, start at just $27,000, a price only a few electric vehicles, like the Chevrolet Bolt, can approach. (Many electric vehicles do qualify for tax credits, though, which the Prius does not.) That means affordable hybrids could have the ability to reduce emissions faster because they can more readily replace purely gasoline-burning vehicles.

“If you reduce by 50% the CO2 emissions on the big volume [of vehicles] because you are protecting affordability, your impact on the planet is very strong and very fast,” Stellantis CEO Tavares said during a recent meeting with the press.

Toyota executives like Keller don’t deny that electric cars will take over the passenger vehicle market one day, and neither does Tavares. Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, is expected to sell only electric vehicles by 2030. Toyota has plans to add more EVs, too. But they warn against leaving excellent, and fuel saving, products like the Prius behind too soon.

Hopefully, the latest version will get more people, who may not be ready for an EV, to take this smaller step, instead.