Pros - Very fuel-efficient. Roomy. Decent handling. Nice ride. Lively. AWD. Many standard and safety features.
Cons - Rather notchy gear selector. No power driver's seat for "e" designation model. Low stance can inhibit entry/exit.
Bottom Line - One of the best fuel-stingy sedans.
I was impressed when I drove the then-new (to America) Toyota Prius in 2000, although it now looks stark compared to the 2021 Prius XLE AWD-e hybrid I recently tested. Some 1.9 million Prius models have been sold in America since then, and more than 6 million have been sold worldwide. It was the world's first production hybrid car, introduced in Japan in 1997.
Toyota has never stopped improving the Prius. The 2021 four-door hatchback model is longer, lower and wider and more aerodynamic than earlier models, although some feel its front styling is controversial despite its remarkably low .24 drag coefficient. I couldn't hear the wind rushing over the car, although I did hear some tire and road noise. A rear window bar can be distracting, but Toyota says it adds rearward visibility because it allows more glass area.
Prius models start at $24,525 and go to $34,000. My test XLE AWD-e model cost $29,575, although you can an XLE in front-drive form for $28,575.
Android Auto is newly available, and the 2021 Prius has more standard and safety features.
The Prius XLE AWD-e has a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine and batteries for a total output of 121 horsepower. That might not seem to be much for 3,375-pound car, but acceleration is quick off the line and my 65-75 passing maneuvers were done fairly rapidly. Just don't expect hot car merging onto fast freeway traffic, especially if the car is in Econ drive mode. There's also driver-controlled normal and power modes, but normal mode is the best all-around one unless a driver is really shooting for maximum fuel economy. The transmission is a responsive CVT automatic. There is seamless transition from electric power to gas power mode, although the engine groans a bit under hard acceleration.
What's that small "e" all about? It signifies that the car has another motor on the rear axle for better grip with the rear wheels and a slight performance boost. It's not part of the hybrid system. But the "e" also means you can't get it with a power driver's seat, although the manual-adjusting seat in my test car was pretty good. However, the telescoping steering wheel needs more range for drivers of various builds.
Driving range is a big Prius plus. This car's range is said to top out at appreciably over 500 miles. It's said to get 51 miles per gallon in the city and 47 on highways. I averaged 40 miles per gallon during a mixture of fast freeway cruising and neighborhood driving. The gas engine and batteries work together seamlessly, and only regular grade gas is needed for the 11.4-gallon tank.
There's room for four tall adults, thanks to upright seating, although five 6-footers fit if the rear center occupant doesn't mind being squeezed a bit. Best to leave that area to the pull-down armrest with cupholders. The EPA says it's a "mid-size car." The low stance can inhibit entry and exit and rear door openings are rather narrow. The cargo area is fairly large under the hatchback and can be made exceptionally roomy by slipping down the rear seatbacks, which sit flat.
The interior is attractive, with two-tone simulated leather upholstery for the heated front seats, and the car's digital instruments can be quickly read at a glance although they're in the near-center of the dashboard and not directly in front of the driver. The 7-inch touchscreen is easy to use, and there's a pushbutton start and clearly marked manual controls. The audio system has six speakers. However, it's easy to accidentally use the driver-door power window switches to lower the rear windows when you just want us the front ones lowered.
The Prius ride is very comfortable, even over freeway bumps, and the firm steering is precise. Handling is good, thanks to the AWD, although the brake pedal feel takes some getting used to. There's no regenerative braking-found in many hybrids-but the shifter has a "brake" insignia that allows engine braking down hill to help prevent brake fade.
Safety features include a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection (but only bicycle detection during the day), dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, blindspot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and intelligent clearance sonar.
Open the heavy hood, which has a prop rod instead of struts, and you'll see a futuristic-looking engine compartment.
The 2021 Prius XLE AWD-e hybrid is a comfortable economy car for all seasons, and it's pleasant to drive and live with.