2023 Toyota Prius First Drive Review: The Iconic Hybrid Finally Glows Up

2023 toyota prius first drive
Peter Nelson

Few badges carry more canon than the Toyota Prius. Since its debut on North American showroom floors in the year 2000, it’s been on the receiving end of so much love yet also so much hate. If you’re the sort of person who spends their days perusing websites like this one, you’ll mostly remember the hate. We don’t need to paint a picture—one quick browse of social media will tell you everything you need to know about this long-running Toyota badge’s reputation. But the brand-new, fifth-generation, 2023 Toyota Prius might have the ability to change some of that.

When we first served our viewership an amuse-bouche of it on Instagram, few cars before it received such a reaction of shock, a sentiment that’s carried over to the physical realm. Every person I told I was heading down to San Diego County to drive the new Prius gave me some version of “Oh wow, let me know what it’s like,” and “I never thought I’d be excited for a new Prius!”

2023 toyota prius first drive exterior rear
Peter Nelson Peter Nelson

But do the car’s features, new technology, and driving experience fit the hype? After driving a mid-tier XLE trim with front-wheel drive, as well as an XLE with all-wheel drive, things are looking up.

This new 2023 model represents a massive change for the Prius. No longer does it resemble a piece of knock-off Tupperware that’s been left in the microwave for too long—it actually looks quite good. It also sports Toyota’s latest infotainment system, good ergonomics, improved interior materials, and some noticeable changes to the way it drives.

2023 Toyota Prius Review Specs

  • Base price (as tested): 
    • XLE FWD, $31,990 ($34,095)
    • XLE AWD, $33,390 ($35,000)
  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle inline-four with a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor | continuously-variable automatic transmission | front- or all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 194 (AWD: 196) @ 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 139 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
  • Battery: 222-volt lithium-ion
  • Curb weight: 3,164 pounds (AWD: 3,285 pounds)
  • Manufacturer-estimated fuel economy:
    • XLE FWD: 52 mpg city | 52 highway | 52 combined
    • XLE AWD: 49 mpg city | 50 highway | 49 combined
  • Quick take: Finally, no more shame. 
  • Score: 9/10

On the outside, newly sporty looks, 17-inch or 19-inch wheels, taut lines, and a sleeker figure really sets the 2023 Prius apart from its forefathers. The bi-LED projector headlights and LED taillights are a nice touch, too, and the more you look at it, the more you discover—it’s a clean, yet detailed exterior. For example, check out the slight curve in the middle of each rocker panel.

Inside, some substantial improvements have been made to the five-seat hatch. Toyota had a current Prius XLE on hand for comparison, and the quality of materials is night and day. While the new Prius’ interior is largely composed of hard and soft-touch plastics, they’re worlds nicer than the chintzy stuff filling out the 2022’s. The main touchpoints are pleasant for the price, and I always respect when an automaker makes the best of harder plastics, like the nicely textured portion of the dash in front of the passenger. Another notable change is the location of the instrument cluster binnacle, which has been moved from the center of the dash to set back above the steering wheel, sort of like what’s found in a few-years-old Peugeot.

As far as dashboard and center console layouts go, Toyota has this down to a science. The center console features the single best phone holder-slash-charging pad that’s ever been conceived, and everything’s laid out extremely nicely. There are two multimedia touchscreen sizes—an eight-inch unit that’s standard on LE and XLE trims, and a more aesthetically pleasing 12.3-inch that’s optional on XLE trims, standard on Limited. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all standard across the board, and the eight-inch infotainment system sports a six-speaker stereo, whereas the 12.3-inch’s eight-speaker, amplified JBL system thoroughly bumps. Both are painless to operate.

Oddly, the physical volume knob is situated far over on the passenger side. Thankfully, the driver can indeed control the volume via the nice assortment of steering wheel controls. The glovebox also opens in a low, awkward position.

Fun fact: while Toyota didn’t give us the exact figure, the new Prius shares the same windshield rake angle as the Lexus LC 500. Further adding to this car’s sports car-like styling are hidden rear door handles. 

Driving the Toyota Prius

When I first set sail in the 2023 Prius XLE AWD, its improved ride quality immediately shined through. Where the old Prius felt vague—until becoming mildly crashy over bumps and crappy SoCal tarmac—the new model had a very refined feel. It translated some road chatter, but by and large, it ironed everything out and never felt too pillowy or disconnected. I almost wanted to inspect the old Prius’ suspension for cut springs just to make sure Toyota wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on us.

The way that the XLE AWD took on corners was equally, pleasantly surprising in how sure-footed it felt. It gripped well through mild, lateral g exercises and felt very solid. There was body roll, but nowhere near as much as I was expecting. “The car is continuously calculating vehicle speed versus torque so that it will apply the appropriate amount of torque to the rear wheels at the right time,” said Prius Chief Engineer Satoki Oya when I asked about its sure-footedness. “That’s why it corners so smoothly.”

Even though he didn’t offer a specific percentage figure as to how much additional rigidity was added, Oya says the source of the new Prius’ refined ride quality lies in its overall stiffer body and chassis. “Since body rigidity is much better, the suspension is much more capable in its movement,” he said. “They really complement each other.” 

The engineer also said that the dampers were revised to have more rebound and that more spring rate was added, but didn’t offer firm figures. When matched with MacPherson front suspension and fully independent multi-link equipment out back, everything added up.

2023 toyota prius first drive side view
Peter Nelson Peter Nelson

The brake pedal had a uniform and decently firm feel to it. For normal slowing and stopping, as well as hard emergency stops, the Prius maintained its sure-footedness quite well. 

Steering weight and feel didn’t change between Normal and Eco modes, however, it did gain some nice weight in Sport. That’s right, the Prius has a Sport mode. It lightened up nicely for low-speed maneuverability and felt planted on the highway—all you could ask for in this segment.

Wind and road noise were nicely insulated. The driving position was great, too—I had just enough headroom for my six-foot-three stature with the seat set at an attentive angle. Outward visibility was overall excellent—though my max elevation noggin meant the rear-view mirror blocked a portion of my 2 and 3 o’clock view—and I enjoyed being able to bring the steering wheel low and reasonably close to my body, thanks to the instrument cluster being so far up the dash. On the flip side, I could extend the seat beyond my legs’ reach, and crunch myself against the steering wheel into the fetal position—talk about a wide range of adjustability.

However, the rear seat area wasn’t as commodious. Space was just a smidge too tight when seated behind myself, and headroom was lacking. Also, for the rear door opening being rather large, the rear door didn’t quite extend out far enough for painless ingress and egress. It will serve just fine as a small family hauler. However, rideshare duty and accommodating taller and heavier set folks in the back might be a little more challenging.

No More Excuses

While chatting with Satoki Oya, I inquired further about how much power goes to the rear wheels on AWD-equipped models. “That’s hard to say because it’s continually variable,” he said. “It’s not a situation where you’d have a maximum amount, and it would stay at that.” This means that it would never send, say, 50% or more of the overall power output to the rear wheels for any noticeable amount of time. Even then, the rear wheels can see as much as 40 hp (up from the current generation’s 7). By that same token, the front motor produces as much as 111 horses (up from 71). Darn, so no drift potential here. 

Moving on to more practical applications, the 2023 AWD Prius jumped off the line more spiritedly than I was expecting, especially when I brake-torqued it. Holding the brake pedal with the gas pedal to the floor creates a neat sensation where you can hear the electric motor in the back come to life, and then the jump has a surprising amount of push. Its zero-to-60-mph time is rated at a scant seven seconds (7.2 for FWD), which isn’t bad at all especially compared to the outgoing model’s slovenly 9.8, and the first few seconds possess that classic, entertaining jolt of EV torque.

Prius owners will truly no longer have any excuses for not getting up to highway speed in a respectable amount of time.

Fuel Saver, Life Savers

Calming things down a tad, one of my top concerns was how the new model carried itself in EV Mode. This can be toggled when you come to a stop, and when combined with a feather-light foot around town, allows electric-only propulsion.

No matter how inconsiderate of those behind me I drove, I couldn’t get the outgoing 2022 Prius to cruise above 22 mph in EV Mode, and even below that figure, it didn’t last long. The 2023, on the other hand, had no issue cruising just a tad higher at 24 mph, and after turning on its nice assortment of advanced driver assistance, it even cruised by the power of battery alone at 33 mph on a very flat stretch of Highway 101. I was hoping for more battery-only propulsion, but perhaps that’ll be reserved for a future Prius Prime.

Towards the end of the day, I paged through the FWD XLE’s in-dash menus and discovered that after a whole day of being wrung out, it was still averaging just over 38 mpg. A more than respectable figure given the manner in which it was driven.

Toggling Toyota’s Safety Sense 3.0 (standard on all trims) was pleasant to operate as well. It includes a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Tracing Assist, Road Sign Assist, Automatic High Beams, and Proactive Driving Assist. With one button I was able to quickly turn on steering assist, lane tracing assist, and radar cruise control—all of which operated in a smooth, not-awkward fashion.

The Early Verdict

Considering its solid assortment of standard equipment, ravishing new looks, great ride quality, respectable jump in power and handling, and substantially better interior, the 2023 Toyota Prius is a slam dunk.

The brand’s molded the little green hybrid into something that shakes off its previous generations’ firmly rooted reputation, and gives whoever has it on their list the ability to have a lot of refinement and overall easy-to-live-with motoring for a good price. They can join traffic at a decent clip, not have to put up with a poor ride or interior quality, and get better fuel economy than ever.

It might not make a hybrid believer out of everybody, but it could sway a lot of detractors—especially those who want economy and comfort during the commute-filled workweek, but have something more fun parked in the garage for the weekend.

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