REVIEW: The 2021 Prius proves that after 20 years, Toyota’s game-changing hybrid is still a masterpiece

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

  • I tested an approximately $31,000 Toyota Prius 2020 Edition, from the 2021 model year.
  • The stalwart hybrid was jazzed up with some cool blacked-out exterior and interior features, but it’s still the same old Prius under the hood: a glorious piece of automotive engineering.
  • Two decades after its arrival on the scene, the Prius continues to make good on the promise of stupendous fuel economy — 52 mpg combined! — and a relaxing, money-saving, low-emission lifestyle.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Every auto journalist has a car they love beyond all measure: ancient Bugattis, unruly Lamborghinis, elegant Aston Martins, cult-classic Acuras, beat-down old pickups, off-roading SUVs, suave Alfa Romeos, peppy Miatas, the singularly brilliant Porsche 911, and oh so many Ferraris. Always the Ferraris.

Me, I carry a torch for the Toyota Prius.

DeBord Prius
Me and my 2011 Prius.

I’ve been justifiably ridiculed for this, but it’s not as though my affection springs from inexperience: I drive pretty much every great vehicle that comes out each year, and I’ve owned groovy old Buicks, a runty Mazda pickup, a Saab 900, a first-generation Miata, a Volvo 240 from the 1980s, and a happy assortment of Japanese sedans and minivans. 

Looking back, I can safely say that while I enjoyed all those rides (I actually cried when I sent the Saab to its final reward), my 2011 Prius is the machine I admire most. 

Toyota last year debuted a special “2020” edition of the car to celebrate it, distinguished by some groovy paint colors and a few commemorative touches. (It was one of 2,020 2020 Editions built – get it?) It sells for about $31,000, and I borrowed it for a week to see if it could spark anew my Prius captivation. 

Of course, it did. 

A work of genius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

I grew up in a family of engineers and from an early age, with the value of technical innovation and elegant solutions to big problems was drilled into me. The basic idea was that you wanted to do the most with the least, avoiding elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style contraptions but not shying away from complexity if an intricate system was the best way to go.

The Prius has always been emblematic of this. The problem to be solved was really threefold: reduce tailpipe emissions to improve air quality; increase fuel economy to conserve what was in the late 1990s thought to be a finite resource whose reserves were dwindling; and provide an economic proposition to consumers who would lower their annual fuel costs.

Toyota worked on the problem for a decade and spent billions. But the results have been stupendous, as the carmaker sold more than 6 million Prius vehicles of assorted types over 20 years. When I lived in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2014, I saw dozens of the hybrid-electric works of genius very day. 

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Each of them had Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive under the hood, a “parallel” hybrid drivetrain that can combine gas and electric propulsion, and that in some versions can run on electric power alone.

The system executes an intricate choreography and is far from simple, but the upshot is a versatile four-door hatchback and a reasonable price with outstanding reliability, minimal emissions, and fantastic MPGs.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

My tester 2020 Edition Prius wore a Supersonic Red paint job, but a new Wind Chill Pearl option is available. The 20th-anniversary details include special floor mats and a black detail kit for the exterior, with sharp 17-inch wheels and what Toyota calls “blackout” trim. The shifter was also blacked out, as were the interior vents. 

The red and the black made for a rather aggressively styled Prius when contrasted with my blue 2011. Inside, my tester sported a black interior, which I considered a pleasing alternative to the space-age white than I savored the last time I reviewed the vehicle.

Still delivers on the MPGs

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

The hybrid drive has evolved, but it remains based on a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine yoked to a pair of electric motors. It yields a total output of 121 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque, sending power to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission.

The fuel economy is impressive: 50 mpg on the highway, 54 mpg in the city, and 52 mpg combined. As a Prius owner, I can attest that this powertrain requires an occasional intervention to maintain the batteries, but otherwise, I’ve endured nary a moment of grief in the six years I’ve had my car.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Technology? The Special Edition has a suite of driver-assist and safety features, but it isn’t a precursor to a self-driving future in the same way it heralded the arrival of the hybrid era two decades ago.

The infotainment setup is … adequate. Toyota isn’t known for great infotainment systems, and the modest, seven-inch touchscreen framed with buttons would strike many car buyers as outdated. It gets the job done – Bluetooth, USB, navigation – however, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available as fallbacks.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Your capacity to consider the Prius a joy to drive is a function of your imagination. Because, objectively, the Prius isn’t fun to drive, even with “Power” mode engaged (it intensifies the throttle response, mainly, and makes the car noisier during its 10-second meander to 60 mph).

The suspension is light and jittery, and despite an impressive 0.24 drag coefficient, the slipstream of air around the vehicle at speed is a tad distracting. 

Saves money! And the planet!

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

The Prius shines, as it always has, when “Eco” mode is on and you’re tooling around town. (There’s also an “EV” mode for brief, low-speed, battery-only transit). Tooling around is where you kill your fuel economy in a traditional car, since the internal-combustion engine is inefficient when puttering.

The Prius’s scale, cargo capacity, and easy steering make everything from parallel parking to Costco jaunts a thoroughgoing pleasure. The fuel gauge barely moves. I’ve sort of given up on running the gas out of one of these things during my usual weeklong tests. Heck, in my own Prius, fill-ups happened only about every other month.

Basically, you’re just saving money, man! Who gives a hoot about whether you can hang with the speed demons?

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

I never forget this when slipping behind the wheel of a Prius (and in my 2020 Edition, that wheel was heated, as were the seats). And because of that, a sense of tranquility washes over me. The instrument cluster is to the right of my line of sight, so all I have in front of me is sharply sloped windshield and road. 

This is the Prius Life, and even in snazzy red and black – even after 20 years – it’s as relaxing as ever.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

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