Hybrids hurtin’, and Toyota seems uncertain about how to help its 2018 Prius family

Updated December 6th, 2017

2018 Toyota Prius

2018 Toyota Prius

What changes make the 2018 Toyota Prius different?

A spruce-up for the Prius c – the most affordable member of Toyota’s hybrid car family – but little if any change to the more popular editions of the lineup. That means a stand-pat 2018 model-year for the best-selling Prius four-door compact hatchback – known as the Liftback – and its plug-in-hybrid iteration, the Prius Prime. Also expected to return little-altered is the largest Prius, the Prius v. All are front-wheel-drive four-door hatchbacks that combine gas and electric power.

Consisting mostly of styling tweaks, the mere freshening for the Prius c could well reflect the slowdown in hybrid-car sales as cheap, plentiful gasoline inspires buyers to gobble up crossover SUVs. Some observers had speculated the c, along with the Prius v, would be all-new for model-year ’18 and follow the Liftback and Prius Prime onto the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA). That modular understructure debuted on the redesigned 2016 Prius Liftback and underpins the Prius Prime, which uses the Liftback’s body and was added for 2017.

Indeed, Prius c sales were down 39 percent through the first seven months of 2017; demand fell 33 percent for the Liftback and 30 percent for the Prius v. Customers have responded to the new-tech Prius Prime plug-in, though; it’s now the second-best selling Prius model, behind the Liftback. (And in a sign of the times, sales of the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid compact crossover rose 7 percent.)

Why should I buy a 2018?

Because even the least-fuel-efficient Prius model, the c, rates among the highest-mileage vehicles on the road, at 46 mpg city/highway combined. The Liftback Eco model rates 56 mpg combined, and the Prius Prime can travel 25 miles using no gas at all. That’s an appealing resume if you like to minimize your fossil-fuel footprint. You’ll also need an appetite for the otherworldly styling Toyota gives the newest Prius Liftback and Prime, and will likely extend to the other Prius variants with their next redesign.

Within this line, the Prius Liftback and Prime are the cutting-edge statements that benefit from the sharpened road manners that came with the TNGA platform. The Prime has some benefits of a pure electric vehicle, but its ability to travel 640 miles with the help of its gas engine means no EV range anxiety.

Some 5.9-inch shorter bumper-to-bumper than the Liftback, the Prius c is a petite runabout that starts at just $21,525. It looks cooler for 2018 thanks to the application of trendy black exterior accents highlighted by dark-gray alloy wheels.

At 4.2-inches longer and about 2 inches taller than the Liftback, the Prius v is a family-friendly wagon with more cargo volume than a Mazda CX-5 crossover. It isn’t a crossover, though; it isn’t available with all-wheel drive. Like Every Prius, though, it favors easy-driving economy over sporty performance. Rivals like the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle and the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid have more engaging road manners.

The 2018 Prius-family lineup is unchanged. Toyota again labels most trim levels numerically, according to escalating levels of standard and available features. The Liftback offers six levels, called Two, Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four, and Four Touring. The Prius c offers grades One through Four, the Prius v grades Two through Five. The Prime comes in Plus, Premium, and Advanced trim.

Should I wait for the 2019 model instead?

Probably not. The core-model Liftback and its plug-in Prime offshoot are highly unlikely to change in any way worth waiting for. And there’s little indication the Prius c or Prius v will, either. Uncertainty surrounds the timetable for their migration to the stronger-yet-lighter TNGA platform and the new styling and engineering that would come with it.

The modular TNGA platform is designed to shrink or stretch to accommodate vehicles the size of the Prius c and v; it already underpins Toyota’s redesigned 2018 Camry midsize sedan. Much depends on Toyota’s willingness to allocate resources to slow-selling hybrid cars. Don’t expect big changes to the Prius c and v for at least two or three years. Even then, they may be replaced by wholly different alternative-fuel vehicles.

Is the styling different?

Only by virtue of changes to the Prius c. It gains black trim along the lower body sides and the wheel arches, plus lower silver accents front and rear. All Prius c grades except the top-line Four also get black trim along the roof line. Wheel sizes are unchanged – 15-inch-diameter standard, 16s optional for the Four version – but the 15-inch alloys standard on the Four and optional on the Three are of a new eight-spoke deign with dark-gray-painted accents. Tide Pool Pearl is a new available color.

Otherwise, the Liftbacks return with the styling that accompanied their model-year-’16 redesign. It’s a polarizing look, characterized by sharp angles and intersecting plains. The Liftback is modestly longer, lower, and wider than its 2010-2015 predecessor. It has a lower seating position and passenger space again approaches that of some midsize-class cars. More glass and a lower dashboard cowl improve outward visibility, but first-time Prius owners must still acclimate to the instrument cluster, which is concentrated in the middle of the dashboard rather than in front of the driver.

The Prius Prime gets even more flamboyant aero addenda and replaces the regular Liftback’s grade-dependent 6.1- or 7-inch dashboard touchscreen (see Features section) with an 11.6-inch multimedia screen to govern audio, climate, and navigation functions. Its vertical, or portrait, orientation is reminiscent of that used by Tesla.

Even with the 2018 freshening, the Prius c looks far less radical than the Liftback. It’s tighter inside, too, with about as much passenger space as Toyota’s subcompact Yaris, though a low roofline means tight rear headroom. The Prius v has true midsize-car interior space, plus family-vacation-worthy cargo volume, at 34.3 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 67.3 with it folded. By comparison, the Liftback has 27.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat and the Prius c 17.1; Toyota doesn’t publish Liftback or Prius c cargo volume with their rear seats folded.

Standard wheels for the other Prius models are 15-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers for the Liftback Two, Two Eco, Three, and Four grades, and 17-inch alloys for the Liftback Three Touring and Four Touring grades. All Prius Prime models have 15-inch alloys. The Prius v Two, Three, and Four grades have 16-inch alloys, the Five has 17-inch alloys.

Any mechanical changes?

Toyota had not released final 2018 Prius specifications in time for this review, but expect powertrains to return unchanged. Every member of the Prius clan combines a four-cylinder gasoline engine with a battery-powered electric motor and uses a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The Liftback, Prius c, and Prius v rely on sensors to determine the optimal blend of gas and electric power to balance performance and fuel economy. They recharge their onboard battery packs by recapturing energy otherwise lost during braking and coasting.

Liftback and v models have a 1.8-liter engine and produce 121 net horsepower. (Toyota does not publish net torque figures for its hybrid vehicles.) Acceleration is adequate in undemanding daily driving. Drivers can select Eco, Normal, and Sport modes, which adjust throttle response. Eco dulls it dramatically, and even in Sport mode, you’ll use every bit of the available power to merge seamlessly with fast-moving freeway traffic or pass on a two-lane road. The Prius c has a 1.5-liter gas four-cylinder and a net 99 horsepower; it’s noticeably slower than either the Liftback or the Prius v.

The Prius Prime is a plug-in hybrid that can draw an initial charge from the residential or commercial power grid. The battery takes about 2 hours to charge from a 220-volt charging station or about 5.5 hours from a standard 110-volt household outlet. It’s capable of traveling up to 25 miles on electric power alone. When its initial battery charge is depleted, it automatically reverts to operating like a conventional hybrid, employing its gas engine and recharging via regenerative braking and coasting.

Thank the TNGA platform for giving the Liftback and Prime decent overall road manners and comfortable ride quality. Skinny tires designed to maximize fuel economy help to limit cornering grip, so handling is economy-car conservative with none of the enthusiast satisfaction you get with, say, a Mazda 3 or Volkswagen Golf. The taller, heavier Prius v is even less a driver’s car, but the lower, lighter Prius c can feel agile around town.

How’s fuel economy?

Exemplary. EPA ratings for the standard Liftback are 54/50/52 mpg city/highway/combined. The Liftback Two Eco model’s aerodynamic and mechanical enhancements boost its ratings to a stellar 58/53/56 mpg.

Running on its initial electric charge, the Prius Prime rates 133 mpg-e, the EPA’s calculated miles-per-gallon-of-gasoline equivalent. Running as a hybrid, it rates 54 mpg city-highway combined.

Using less-sophisticated (and less costly) powertrain technology than the newer Liftback models, the Prius c rates 48/43/46 mpg city/highway/combined. Also saddled with last-generation technology, plus extra bulk, the Prius v rates 43/39/41 mpg city/highway/combined. Still, that’s much better than any similarly sized, conventionally powered compact station wagon or crossover SUV. All Prius variations use regular-grade 87-octane fuel.

Does it have new features?

Details of the 2018 Prius feature set were not released in time for this review, but expect the main change to be inclusion of a backup camera as standard on the Prius c One, Two, and Three grades. That brings them abreast of all other Prius variants for that driver aid as standard. But both the Prius c and lower-trim grades of the Prius v remain behind the newer Liftback and Prime – and most other Toyotas — for the latest safety features.

Laudably, the automaker is moving quickly to equip all its cars and crossover SUVs with its Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P) system as standard equipment. Included on all Prius Liftback and Prime models, TSS-P is made up of radar-based adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set following distance from traffic ahead, lane departure warning with automatic steering correction, and automatic high-beam headlight control. Crucially, it also includes autonomous emergency braking that can automatically stop the car to prevent a frontal collision with another vehicle or with a pedestrian (denoted by the “P”).

Standard on the Prius c and optional on the Prius v Five grade is a less-complete system, Toyota Safety Sense-C. This includes autonomous emergency braking, but without pedestrian detection, and lane-departure warning without steering correction. Automatic high beams are part of TSS-C.

For 2017, TSS-C was available on the Prius v only as part of the $3,335 Advanced Technology Package option for the top-trim Five grade. On the plus side, Prius v Fives equipped with the package, along with all Prius Liftback and Prime models, achieved the coveted “Top Safety Pick+” award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

On the connectivity front, every Prius again comes with Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. The basic system uses the 6.1-inch dashboard screen and includes Bluetooth phone connectivity and music streaming, a CD player, Siri Eyes Free interface, and USB iPod connectivity and control. This system enables you to display smartphone GPS apps on the dash screen.

To insure real-time navigation in the absence of a cell signal, you’ll need the imbedded navigation system that’s part of the more advanced Entune system. This system is standard starting with the Three-grade versions of the Liftback, Prius v, and Prius c. It’s also included on the Prius Prime Premium and Advanced grades. It features an audio-system upgrade incorporating satellite radio with a 3-month complementary subscription. On the conventional-hybrid Liftbacks, it replaces the 6.1-inch touchscreen with the 7-incher.

Cloth upholstery is standard on lower-trim models. Toyota’s SofTex simulated leather upholstery is standard for Liftbacks starting with the Three Touring grade, for the Prius v Four and Five grades, the Prius c Four, and the Prime Premium and Advanced grades.

The options lists is short for any Prius. The 2018 Prius c Three model is available with a power moonroof for $700, the Prius c Four with the 16-inch alloy wheels for $300. The Liftback Three and Four grades are available with a $1,350 Advanced Technology Package that includes a color head-up instrument display. The Liftback Four and Four Touring models also offer a Premium Convenience Package for $3,055 and $1,705, respectively. It includes front- and rear-obstacle detection, automated hands-free parallel parking, and Toyota’s Safety Connect Telematics.

Other than some extra-cost exterior colors, the only Prius v option for 2017 was the aforementioned Advanced Technology Package. In addition to TSS-C, it included such amenities as a panoramic moonroof.

Are 2018 prices different?

The only 2018 Prius prices released in time for this review were those for the Prius c. Its base prices increased $480 for the One and Three grades, to $21,525 and $22,235, respectively. The Two grade increased $390, to $23,750. And the Four grade was unchanged, at $25,860. All base prices in this review include Toyota’s destination fee, which is $895 for the Prius, but may vary by region of the U.S.

Expect base prices for the 2018 Prius Liftback, Prime, and Prius v to increase slightly. Estimated 2018 base-price ranges are $26,000-$31,400 for the Liftback, $27,400-$34,400 for the Prime, and $28,000-$32,200 for the Prius v.

When does it come out?

Release date for the 2018 Toyota Prius c was July 2017. Release date for the 2018 Prius Prime is Dec. 1, 2017. Toyota had not announced a release date for the 2018 Prius Liftback and Prius Prime.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Volt and Bolt, Ford C-MAX Hybrid and Energi, Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Niro, Nissan Leaf

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]