Toyota Prius III (2010-2015) road test / car review

Prius power, performance, and efficiency

The Toyota Prius can be an efficient car which helps drivers to increase their mileage; it can be an ordinary daily driver; or it can be a sporty-feeling hatchback. The feel of the car is dramatically altered by whether the driver chooses the Power or Economy mode — or ignores them both. Never before have we encountered Power and Economy buttons that had so much of an impact.

hybrid cars

In stop and go traffic (or when your parents are in the car), the Economy mode is ideal; a large push down on the pedal is required to get much movement, and flooring it is needed to get serious acceleration. The Power mode makes the throttle much more responsive, providing more push for the movement and increasing the sensation of power far beyond what is actually there. Most of the time, the standard mode is more than satisfactory; and in any case, if you push the pedal to the metal, the motor provides instant response; then the engine comes in as the CVT “downshifts” to a lower gear ratio.

55 mpg on the highwayPart of the reason for the new feeling of power is the increased capability of the gasoline engine, an Atkinson-cycle 1.8 liter powerplant (the 2ZR-FXE, not the one used in the Corolla) of just under 100 horsepower. In addition to providing more zoom, its greater low-end torque helps on the highway. Owners can now find better high-speed gas mileage because the engine doesn't have to work as hard (cold-start mileage has also been improved).

The weak point of the Prius used to be highway driving; now highway mileage is rated at 48 mpg, and you can fly down the highway or zoom up the ramp, getting up to speed well before running out of acceleration lane. Even though you only feel that initial burst of power from the motor and CVT downshift, the engine will remain at its peak power output until you ease off the pedal, and acceleration from 0 to 65 is quite competitive. The most important range, 0 to 40, is very good, as is passing power (e.g. 55 to 65). Improved traction from the tires helps, as does the instant boost from the electric motor, which gives an extra 2-3 miles per hour instantly, while most other automatic-transmission cars will be working on a downshift. While 0-60 sprints take around ten seconds, which is not especially fast (or especially slow), the powertrain is instantly responsive due to the motor and CVT.

At highway speeds, the Prius is fairly quiet - with more wind noise than the better-insulated Camry, but nothing to complain about, and better than past models. The engine is not a powerhouse at highway speeds, but it's strong enough and reacts than the Camry four-cylinder automatic we tested just before getting the Prius. It’s certainly a far cry from the original, which was fussy and loud on the freeway; now, you can speed at irresponsible speeds with everyone else, and feel as though you're in a “regular” car while you're doing it. Again, the Prius can be treated as a regular family or commuter car, and will consistently deliver gas mileage in the 30-50 mpg range; or you can follow its many pointers and shame the EPA 50 mpg estimate.

What's more, the suspension of the Prius has been refined to the point that grip is no longer an issue. Whether you start out on a turn or a straight, the tires keep their grip on the road and do not squeal. The Prius cannot be taunted for its speed or cornering, at least not compared with similarly sized, similarly priced cars.

hybrid electric cockpit

The engine was deliberately allowed to have an un-Toyotalike amount of noise and vibration at idle, though they toned down the noise at full throttle (originally the engine was meant to provide an audible dis-incentive to high acceleration), and power application is smoother than it used to be across the board, without the “stepping” feel of the first generation. It's not too annoying, but you certainly notice it when the engine shuts off. One can also encourage the engine to shut down earlier by shutting off the heat or air conditioning until the engine warms up... another case of the Prius training its driver to have more frugal habits.

The powertrain is smooth under acceleration; the engine powers a responsive CVT, a belt-driven automatic transmission without discrete gears (“continuously variable”). CVTs have proven themselves in longevity, and Toyota has been using them since the first Prius; Nissan and Chrysler have also adopted CVTs for “regular” cars. It takes a little getting used to, but the CVT is well programmed and acts sensibly. Indeed, we prefer it to Toyota's six-speed automatic (at least as the latter is coupled to the Camry Four).

2010 toyota prius

When you drive normally, the gear ratio changes are imperceptible; when you need sudden power, it takes little time for the gearing to drop down to its power range, and it stays there as long as you need full power. The result (which is not unique to hybrids) is that acceleration feels somewhat anti-climactic, while with a conventional automatic you would feel a downshift, rev, downshift, with the engine making progressively more noise as it revs higher within each gear. With a CVT, the audible cues are gone - the engine goes to its peak power and stays there.

The shifter is pointlessly complicated. Push the shifter to the left (encountering almost no resistance) and up for Reverse, Down for drive (if you have your foot on the brake; otherwise, don't bother). From Park you can go straight down to get into B mode, which provides low-gear-style breaking (provided by the regenerative brakes) for going down steep hills; or you can go from Drive to Brake, by going up-right-down. Confused yet? One does get used to it. One also gets used to ignoring the Park button most of the time, because it automatically goes into Park when you shut the engine. One wonders why they bother with the levers at all, when they could pull a 1960s-Chrysler and go with all buttons.

Speaking of shutting the engine, Toyota uses a pushbutton starter; if your foot is on the brake, it starts the engine. Otherwise, it goes into accessory mode. We found it unnecessary as well but got used to it, unlike the conventional emergency brake, which was foot-operated. The rubber pedal cover fell off almost immediately, and reattaching it didn't work for long, so we got used to a slippery brake pedal, which meant that sometimes we had to reengage it a few times (because it's push to set, push to release.) It's time for Toyota to use a separate brake release.

Toyota Prius powertrain

Under the hood, the Prius looks easier to maintain than many pure-gas cars. The 1.8 engine is also the first Toyota powerplant that requires no belts under the hood, improving fuel economy and cutting maintenance and a point of failure.

Hybrid Synergy DriveThe 2010 Toyota Prius’ 50 mile per gallon neatly beats Ford’s new Fusion hybrid by nine miles per gallon (Ford advertised the Fusion heavily as the "best mileage midsized sedan," but Prius is a hatchback.) Numerous changes helped it to pull ahead:

Weight was also saved through use of aluminum in the hood, rear hatch, front suspension axle and brake caliper, and super high-tensile steel in the rocker inner, center pillar, and roof reinforcement. Zero-to-60 acceleration has been cut to 9.8 seconds, more than a second faster.

Our gas mileage did not get as high as the EPA estimates. We aggressively tested acceleration and cornering; and most of our trips were relatively short, in freezing weather when any engine will start out being less efficient. We still never had a trip end with less than 25 miles per gallon, even a two-mile cold-start one-way journey. We drove to a 20-minute-away destination during a snowfall, with frequent stops; on the way, we averaged 32 mpg, and on the way back, 48 mpg. Even on bad trips, we used far less fuel than most other cars could dream of, including small economy cars and other hybrids. The fuel economy of the Prius puts the Smart to shame, and it seats four quite comfortably. 

Engine warmup in cold weather is speeded along by a new exhaust heat recirculation system which warms the antifreeze while the engine is cold. For hot weather, a re-engineered air conditioner is more efficient.

2010 prius

Another Prius surprise is the cornering. With its low-rolling-resistance tires and heavy weight, we expected the Prius to squeal its tires around any sort of hard turn, but that didn't happen. Instead, it stuck to the road like glue, with very little body roll (credit the battery pack for helping to make a low center of gravity). To pay for this, the ride is now much stiffer than in the past, so that bumps are felt more clearly and more sharply. The end result is still an improvement - at least, to those who like to feel the road more. The ride is a little on the stiff side but not uncomfortable.

The Prius was surprisingly good in snow, rain, and on dry roads, whipping around turns that some “standard“ cars would have a problem with. The suspension uses front struts and a rear intermediate beam design, as before, but handling stability was advanced by improving the stabilizer layout and bushings, and using higher caster angle. The electric-boosted steering still doesn't have a sporty or “connected” feel, but that's a common complaint.

hatchback rear view

The brakes were very effective, and while still a little grabby, were better modulated than in the past. Disc brakes are now used on all four corners, replacing the front disc/rear drum brakes.

Visibility was generally very good, though the large bar going across the hatch was fairly intrusive, as was the decision to have the two parts of the hatch with different tints. On the lighter side, the lower portion seemed fairly impervious to rain and snow blockages, and did not fog much; the top part had its own wiper/washer, and both parts had electric defroster elements. The headlights were strange but effective, using an almost-white bare bulb for parking lights, headlights mounted on the far outside, and huge high beams. The passenger-side windshield wipers was mounted on a special pivot which allowed it to clear more of the glass.

electric symbol Prius headlights

The front defroster was relatively ineffectual, and took a long time to defog the windshield.

Stylistically, the Prius seems to be a good looking car, especially given that it was styled with aerodynamics in mind. The height of the Prius is the same as the prior generation, but the top of the roof was moved 3.9 inches to the rear for better rear headroom and lower drag. The front cowl was moved forward slightly, and while the wheelbase is unchanged, the overall length grew by half an inch. Toyota claims that the Prius received more wind tunnel hours of testing than any other Toyota in history; the drag coefficient (cD) dropped from an excellent 0.26 on the outgoing 2009 to 0.25 on the 2010. Toyota focused on the shape of the body, underfloor, wheelhouse liner and shape of the wheels, changing the shape of the fender liner and underfloor, and adding a fin at the rear floor cover to increase linear stability.

2010 Toyota Prius controls and gauges

The interior is stylish and well designed, with swoopy surfaces, curves but not too many curves, and clever touches such as narrow, unobtrusive vents (which can, it must be said, be hard to arrange so the driver doesn't get an unpleasant wind). The center stack was redefined, brought out directly from the dashboard to the center console between the front seats, with a covered cupholder up top, another underneath the sliding console, and a large storage area underneath the extension (the photos show it more clearly). This allowed Toyota to bring the shifter up, making it more convenient (and getting it away from the dashboard), and to the controls more accessible, and operated with larger buttons so that drivers can wear gloves and still control their car. The buttons are also all backlit, so you can use them at night without having memorized their positions.

Toyota seats and interior

That's an especially good move, given how many controls and gadgets the Prius has. The stereo has AM, FM, Satellite, CD, and auxiliary hard buttons, all separated to make life easier for the driver, and, again, all backlit. There are two knobs, for volume and tuning, - though unfortunately, setting bass, treble, balance, and fade still require going through soft buttons and multiple screens (hard Audio button; press Sound on bottom right of screen; drag sliders on screen). Now, why could Toyota not just build in its usual "press Tune to get into audio controls, then turn the knob to adjust" system, and have the screen follow along?

The optional voice-activated navigation system adds hard buttons for destination, map, setup, and display settings. Then there is the info-phone system, which provides you with a calendar, phone controls, and map data. Somewhere in there is maintenance data, too. Oddly, vehicle preferences are not set through the nav system, but through the display button on the steering wheel - a painful and counter-intuitive process involving just two buttons, and with options that are not explained. Numerous settings cannot be altered by the driver, an odd choice given how many computers power the Prius and how well some other interfaces are set up until one considers that the nav system is an option.

rear view camera

A built in video camera (which comes with the nav system) takes over the screen automatically when the driver shifts into Reverse; it works in color, day or night, and does very well in low-light situations.

The climate control system is a mixed bag. The standard thermostatic control is easy enough - press Temp Up or Down - and the fan control is easy too, which is good given how noisy the fan can be on Auto. The main issue we have is with the Mode button; the choice of fans is made by pressing Mode repeatedly until you get what you want, which is just asking for trouble when someone is supposed to be driving.

A new system is Touch Tracer; it hooks the steering wheel control buttons up to the instrument panel, where it overlays the information already there. A picture is worth a thousand words; this is what happens when you touch one of the steering wheel buttons. The purple indicators appear on a separate layer of the screen, above the rest. This, too, is standard.

touch tracer

We missed having an analog speedometer sitting right in front of the driver, but at least the digital speedomeeter had large, clear, readable figures. (The Chrysler 200C shows the future of digital displays: analog dials shown on an LCD screen, with the driver able to reconfigure them at will.) On the right of the digital speedometer is a gas mileage gauge which shows instant mileage as a bar graph, and on the left is the digital gas gauge. Nowhere do you see a tachometer, engine temperature, or other conventional display; even the odometer is unconventional, and only comes up if you ask it to (by pressing Trip and giving up the trip odometer/average mileage/speed and distance to empty readings).

Instead, the Prius provides detailed information about its operations and fuel efficiency, with your choice of an animated diagram showing where the power is going (which we do not recommend since it's a serious source of distraction), a trip display with minute-by-minute histograms of consumption accompanied by average speed and mileage since the last reset, and a display showing gas mileage per full trip.

The single minute display is reset each time you start the car (except the averages); the per-trip is continuous, and shows the highest gas mileage achieved on each trip along with the miles travelled. The little cars in the by-minute display indicated where 30 watt-hours of power were regenerated by the brakes.

1 minute

The instrument panel also shows the power mode (electric, power, or economy) and cruise control status. While Toyota didn't provide a normal speedometer, they did spring for separate indicators to tell when the cruise control is on, and when a speed is locked in, which is a nice touch that remains unusual. All of the displays were consistently clear and easy to read, protected from direct sunlight by a large brow and bright enough to be seen regardless.


On a foggy, damp day, the instrument panel clouded up, actually hiding the speedometer; turning on the defroster cleared it almost instantly, indicating that Toyota had foreseen the problem and resolved it.

Toyota Prius interior and seats

The front seats were more supportive under the thigh than those of the Camry, and helped us to drive the Prius every day without back problems. The bucket seats quietly gripped the driver around hard turns and required little adjustment for comfort. In back, the new front seat design aided legroom with a new contoured design that provided rear passengers with more space. The interior was well lit at night, with fast-acting "opera style" lights.

cargo bay

The cargo area of the new Prius was expanded 0.4 inches in length and 2.2 inches in width by using a new and an improved layout of the battery cooling unit; it remains nicely sized in length and width, but shallow. A tonneau cover is supplied to hide anything in the cargo area, or at least anything that isn't very tall. In our test car, the plastic that the cover hooked into was lined up poorly on both sides. The cargo net worked well in the upright position but there was no way to attach it to the floor-mounted cargo net holds on the floor of the cargo bay by the rear seats (as a hold-down net).

The 2010 Prius uses plant-derived, carbon-neutral plastics, known as “ecological plastic,” in the seat cushion foam, cowl side trim, scuff plates, and deck trim cover. Ecological plastic emits less CO2 and helps reduce petroleum use. It was impossible for us to tell the difference between these plastics and the prior ones.

As with past Priuses, a touch of the driver's door handle unlocked the driver's door; no such provision was made this time for other doors or the trunk, which had to be unlocked from the fob or from the interior switch (Bill pointed out that the car could be made to unlock all the doors at once, using a process in the owner's manual; but that still means going to the driver's side). The cargo bay used the slow-reacting, annoying power release common across manufacturers in newer cars. As for locking, the buttons used on past models were replaced by having one touch-sensitive area on the driver's door for unlocking and another, indicated by ribs, for locking.

glove compartments

Up front, there were numerous areas to put small and large items, including rigid, primitive cupholders in the center console (one lid-covered, one under the sliding armrest); dual glove compartments, as shown; small map pockets in the doors; and the large padded area underneath the shifter.

2010 Toyota Prius safety, gizmos, gadgets

A plug-in hybrid system debuted at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The remote air-conditioning system is the first system in the world to function on battery power alone and that can be remotely operated, so the driver can adjust the interior temperature for comfort before getting in the car. It does seem to be at odds with the general theme; more appropriate for a fuel-sipper is the optional moonroof with solar panels, powering a ventilator to prevent the cabin from becoming an oven while parked. That makes the cool-down time shorter when the driver returns, reducing the use of air conditioning.

solar panels

Optional LED lamps for the low beams and in the tail and stop lamps cut energy use. These appear to replace the prior high-intensity discharge lamp option.

The new Prius was designed to comply with class-top level collision safety performance in each region of sale, and to accommodate stricter requirements in the future. Front and rear side curtain airbags, driver and passenger seat-mounted side airbags and knee airbags are standard. Active headrests are used in both front seats to prevent whiplash in a collision. Anti-lock Brake System (ABS), Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), electronic traction control (TRAC) and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) are all standard.

Toyota's Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which uses radar to maintain a safe distance from the car in front (reducing speed as needed), is optional; buyers also get Lane Keep Assist, which helps the driver stay within their lane, and the Pre-Collision System, which retracts seatbelts and applies the brakes in certain conditions when a crash is unavoidable, presumably using radar data from the cruise control.

2010 toyota prius

The new “Intelligent Parking Assist” has simplified settings to help guide the car into parking spaces. Safety Connect, Toyota’s first safety and security service, echoes OnStar.

Overall environmental impact

Prius critics, most of whom have never actually driven one, tend to have numerous problems with the cars. The complaints seen most often are power (which is more than sufficient, especially now), the nature of the buyers (who apparently all live in Long Island and Hollywood, despite Toyota's sales figures, registration figures, and anyone you personally may know), the voting habits or political beliefs of the buyers, and the idea that, overall, the Prius is more damaging to the environment than a gas-powered car. The final statement is hard to dispute, especially with one group claiming that, across its full life, the most environmentally friendly vehicle is the heavy Jeep Wrangler, which isn't know for fuel economy (16 city, 24 highway, around the same as competitors from Toyota and Ford). We can't debate that, but we can echo Toyota's statement:

The new Prius is built using processes that reduce pollution in every stage of vehicle life, from production and driving, through to disposal. The third-generation Prius extends its record of continuous improvement in fuel economy. The first-generation Prius, which was rated 41 EPA combined mpg, was replaced by the 2005 model, EPA rated at 46 mpg, combined city/highway. Using a combination of technologies, fuel efficiency was increased to an estimated 50 miles per gallon (48/52) for the new Prius.

It used to be that we only recommended the Prius for those who put in mostly city or suburban miles, but with the better highway mileage, that isn't the case; though those who put on mostly highway miles may still be better served with a little diesel.

Prius Pricing

The base price of the Toyota Prius is $23,750, including destination. That includes a wide array of standard features, most of which have already been noted. Some additional features are tire pressure monitors (though without a separate readout for each tire), antitheft engine immobilizer, rear spoiler, intermittent wipers for front and rear, power heated outside mirrors that fold in as needed, tilt-telescope steering wheel with audio controls, JBL six-disc CD changer with satellite radio, auxiliary jack, and BlueTooth connectivity, six-way adjustable driver's seat (and four-way adjustable front passenger seat), cruise, auto climate control, overhead console with map lights, and two 12 volt outlets. The status displays and trip computers, numerous airbags, stability control, and many other features are all standard.

hybrid-electric cars

Our test car weighed the scales at $27,601, in the range of the Toyota Camry XLE, thanks to three options. The cheapest was the $50 cargo net, which presumably has a $45 net profit; followed by the $200 carpeted floor mats (including one for the cargo bay). The bulk of the added cost was the $3,600 solar roof package, which included the namesake solar roof (which, if you recall, powers a handy ventilator, just the thing for those who commute to an open parking lot in hot climates.) The pain of the solar roof is offset by the added goodies it comes with, namely remote air conditioning (an odd choice since you don't really need the remote air if you have the ventilator!), and the voice-activated touch-screen navigation system with traffic warnings, hands-free phone capability, and backup camera. This cuts the CD changer to four discs but adds two speakers, for a total of eight and a satisfying sound system. For most people, the base package is a good deal; with the solar roof, the price might be pushing it a bit, but for those who have the money, it's still competitive against numerous gas-powered cars and crossovers.

The Prius is made in Japan, along with most major components; Toyota has announced that it plans to move some production to the United States, though it has not said where major components, such as engines and batteries, would be made.

The Prius is an easy car to drive and to live with. At less than the cost of a four-cylinder Camry SE automatic, it provides more responsiveness, a more fun feel, and similar comfort and sound insulation, with roughly double the mileage. It's small surprise that many people seeking a new family car turn to the Prius and find it to be the best value for the money — indeed, it can be argued that even without the exceptional gas mileage, it would be a good value.

In the past, we could complain about the Prius on the highway, or the acceleration, or the feel. Now, it's hard to find causes for complaint, other than the lack of an analog speedometer in front of the driver. It's easy to see why the Prius has such a lead in sales over any other hybrid car —  why some dealers have waiting lists — and why so many Toyota Prius drivers are not “eco-snobs,” or “Hollywood hypocrites,” or, in short, show-offs; most, in our experience, are perfectly ordinary people, modest people, people who don't feel they need to prove anything to anyone. They chose the Prius because it was the most practical car for them, and it's hard to argue with that; because it would probably be the most practical car for me, as well.

Toyota Prius specifications

1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with VVT-i, 98 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 105 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Electric motor: Permanent magnet synchronous motor powered by NiMH battery pack, 80 hp/153 lb-ft torque
Emission rating: SULEV (with AT-PZEV)
Electronically controlled continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels
Estimated fuel economy: 50 mpg (combined)*
Tire Size: 15-inch: 195/65R15; 17-inch: 215/45R17 (optional); both sizes use alloy wheels
EPA class rating: Midsize


2000 Prius 2010 Prius III 2009
Horsepower (I4) 70+motor 134 (combined) 155-158 169-179
Torque (4-cylinder) 82 + 258 105 lb-ft (engine)
153 lb-ft (motor)
(hybrid, 199)
Wheelbase 100.4 106.3” 109” 109”
Length / Width /
Height (inches)
170 x 66.7 x 57.6 175.6 x 68.7 x 58.7 189 x 72 x 57.5 189 x 72 x 57.5
Weight 2,765 3,042 lb 3,285 - 3,340  
Cargo volume
(EPA cubic feet)
11.8 cubic feet 21.6 cubic feet
(folded seats?)
14.5 (SE, XLE)
15.0 (CE, LE)
14.5 (SE, XLE)
15.0 (CE, LE)
Gas tank 12 gallons 12 gallons 18.5 gallons 18.5 gallons
Front headroom 38.8 38.3 39 39
Rear headroom 37.1 37.6 38 38
Front legroom 41.2 42.5 41.5 41.5
Rear legroom 35.4 36 38 38
MPG 52/45 50/48 I4/auto, 24/33
hybrid, 40/38 mpg
Ground clearance   5.5    
Est 0-60 (I4 auto)   9.8 9.3 (hybrid, 8.9)  
Aerodynamics (cD)   0.25 0.27 n/a


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