The 2023 Prius Is the Most Important Car That Nobody Is Talking About
Hankering for an EV but can’t afford one? You should be looking at the Prius.
While you were sleeping, the Toyota Prius grew up.
It became, firstly, attractive — even sleek — shedding its ugly-duckling M.O. No, it didn’t suddenly become an EV; it’s still a hybrid, but with a ridiculous 57 mpg and a damn cheap $27,450 price tag, it’s one of the smartest, most affordable ways you can reduce your carbon footprint.
If you’re questioning that first sentence, I get why. For a quarter century, the Prius was a virtue-signaling king, right down to that mandatory “Coexist” bumper sticker.
Toyota finally ditched the awkwardly creased sheet metal and the most uncomfortably pinched schnoz is history. It also nixed the dancing bear effect of wheels tucked too far inward, like a car that was embarrassed by its own species. What you see today must have come out of a debate between the mad scientists who decided to make the GR Corolla (yes, a 300-horsepower Corolla) and the flannel-clad designers who presumably live in Toyota’s truck department.
Why Toyota finally built a Prius that’s actually attractive, with a sculptural, sleek, even mildly muscular stance, a rakishly swept roof, and a nifty hatch that incorporates a sporty spoiler doesn’t matter. They did it! In the 1990s, Toyota made hybrids quirky. Now, in 2023, they finally made them cool. Here’s why that matters.
The Carbon Cutting Bona Fides
A lot of people would like to own an EV right now. But there are several reasons that’s improbable. First, there’s the steep sticker of most new EVs, which hits $40,000 without trying — and way more if you want any add-ons. Plus, only some of those are available with federal tax credits, and to the chagrin of city dwellers, they’re frequently very large cars that suck to park. Speaking of city life, lots of us don’t have ready access to convenient EV charging at home, and even if your condo has that infrastructure, it’s for five parking spaces out of 100.
So, one way the Prius makes sense is that, because it’s a hybrid, it’s running an electric motor to augment the gas engine. And because the base model is not a plug-in hybrid, you’re not depending on that plug to enable that fuel savings. Just consider one planet-important stat: According to the EPA, it emits 2.6 tons of greenhouse gasses per year. That's roughly half the greenhouse gasses of class-competitive models that sell in greater numbers, the Mazda 3 and the Subaru Crosstrek. This is not to pick on those two cars; they get decent, 30-ish mpg, and they're very good products. So is the Ford Bronco Sport. But if you go Prius you halve your annual carbon footprint versus those two hatchbacks, and the Prius is 75 percent less carbon-emitting than the Ford.
Range Anxiety is Real-ish
We know that the initial tranche of EVs is like a rolling Rorschach test: Carmakers are busting their butts to get you 300 miles of range because drivers fear there aren’t enough fast chargers in enough locations near them. And that’s despite the fact that most of us seldom drive more than 40 miles in a day. If that’s all you do, any EV can recharge that much overnight on a regular wall plug.
But there are plenty of people who do have to drive farther for a daily or weekly trip, and if there’s no convenient way to charge at either end of that journey, an EV might not be ideal. Here, the Prius crushes: You can go 644 miles between fill-ups; that’s L.A. to Chicago on a little more than three tanks of gas, or L.A. to San Francisco, and back, on just about one tank.
Then there’s all-wheel drive. For far too long, the Prius was a front-wheel-drive-only compact car. But if you’re willing to spend just a little more — $28,850 — there’s an AWD Prius for you. Fuel economy falls just a smidge, to 54 mpg. But having AWD also makes a Prius a more viable option versus the soon-to-be-discontinued Chevy Bolt (which was only sold with FWD) or the FWD Nissan Leaf, the only sub-$30,000 EV that truly makes sense as the argument against the Prius. Sadly, that inexpensive Leaf only has 149 miles of range, and the longer-range version costs $35,000. To get AWD on most EVs pushes the retail closer to $45,000 to $50,000.
And it’s not all just practicality. The older the Prius, the less adept it’s been at handling and acceleration. Even recent Priuses felt like they were at their suspension, acceleration, and cornering limits when you were merely driving a freeway off-ramp with a decent amount of urgency. Toyota’s at last addressed this. The new Prius rides on a stiffer chassis, and even though the car rides smoothly, it now bends around asphalt twists with actual verve and agility. Yes, we put the word “agility” very close to the word “Prius” in the same sentence! And 194 horsepower is juice enough to finally have excellent passing power — Toyota also fitted the Prius with superior brakes, too.
And for $32,350 Toyota will sell you a Prius Prime. This version of the base car adds a bigger battery that can roll 44 miles on EV power alone. For a lot of people that could mean driving most days without using any gasoline at all. Consider it a dress rehearsal for the grand performance of full EV ownership. And if the sticker stings, know that in some states having the plug-in capability adds decent tax incentives. That’s $1,000 from California (and area utilities also offer a bunch of incentives in the Golden State), and $1,500 in Pennsylvania. (You can search for your state’s incentives, here.)
The Prius Proposition
But there’s always a dark cloud to every silver lining, right? Massively reducing your carbon footprint from driving isn’t eliminating it. And while the baby step of buying the plug-in Prius is definitely better than the non-plug variety, it only matters if you plug it in and a lot of data now shows PHEV owners don’t do so diligently. Let’s say you will. That’s great! But you could also wait a few months until both the Hyundai Kona EV and the new Volvo EX30 debut. Both will sell for about $35,000, which isn’t the $32,350 of the Prius Prime, but is only marginally more. Both of those cars will be fully electric, marking an era when EVs start to get semi-affordable.
We started this exercise arguing that the Prius should be more discussed for what it is, not what it isn’t. It isn’t the solution to the climate crisis. But if more people considering just a normal gas car test-drove one — and people who wished they could afford an EV also test-drove one — way more people would actually buy a Prius. Just doing that, and not buying even a semi-fuel-efficient gas car would make a difference. Every step in a better direction is several tons of carbon not contributed to the climate — that, we know, would be great for all of us.