New Prius takes hybrid to the next level

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The 2016 Toyota Prius gets a new look for this model year, with sharper headlights and taillights.

2016 Toyota Prius Four: A higher-level hybrid?

Price: $31,743 as tested (including $519 Protection Package, $225 for floor mats, $99 for tablet holder, and $65 for wheel locks). A base Prius (the Prius Two) can be had for $24,200.

Conventional wisdom: When I tested a 2011 model some years ago, I wrote: "The admission fee is a little steep, but the reward is a competent car that improves gas mileage when you're stuck in traffic."

Marketer's pitch: "This is what's next."

Reality: This new Prius is even competenter.

Let's save some fuel: Cramming three test cars into a nine-day period meant planning a long trip for the Prius, if I intended to use up a tank of gasoline. With a 500-plus-mile range, I looked for something at least three hours away. So the Sturgis Clan Priused all the way to Hyde Park, N.Y., and Franklin Roosevelt's estate and presidential library, a fittingly liberal destination for such a vehicle (though it was his Republican cousin Theodore who gave us the FDR estate's owners, the National Park Service).

You've got the look: The Prius remains an edgy vehicle, with even sharper headlights and taillights than before.

The horizontal divide across the rear window remains as well, much to my dismay.

Controls: Toyota made the cockpit far more inviting by dispatching the Jetsons-style almost-horizontal dashboard and joystick gear lever. The shifter now emerges more discreetly from underneath the HVAC/audio system and the dashboard looks more earthbound.

The digital speedometer remains across the center of the dashboard, though, so drivers can't sneak a few extra mph past nervous passengers.

Driver's Seat: The seat sits a bit lower than the previous Prius, and that's all for the best. The leather seats are comfortable, although for $30,000 I want cooled seats as well.

Fuel economy: I averaged 52 mpg in our tester over the first 100 or so miles of commuting-style driving.

The overall number dropped to 49 mpg after 350 highway miles to the Hudson Valley and back, where I wasn't able to use braking to regenerate the batteries and drive the motor.

Up to speed: Of course, it's about the journey, not hurrying to the destination. Still, the Prius is no slouch - its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor combine to give the car 121 horsepower, but they certainly motivate the just-over-3,000-pound car effectively.

I switched to the Eco mode, and, wow, did this fun little car turn into a dawg. Eighty-year-olds in Buicks were honking at me.

Shifty: The CVT worked unobtrusively, if humdrumly.

On the road: The handling in the front-drive Prius remains as satisfying as ever. The Prius doesn't zig around the curves like sportier models, but the light steering has enough feel that it doesn't recall an old Corolla.

In the weather: Some of this spring's fast-appearing storms slowed us down in the swampy New Jersey flatlands, but the Prius seemed stable and capable despite its light weight.

Friends and stuff: The previous generation of Prius offered decent comfort for three in the back, but now the Sturgis Kids are five years older. Now that 4.0 is 6 feet tall, his comfort level has shrunk quite a bit under the slanted roof. Legroom, foot room, and headroom are all a bit tight.

Still, even after the better part of seven hours inside the Prius, we found it rode like a comfortable sedan.

Cargo space is growing. Toyota has pushed it to 27 cubic feet behind the rear seats (without a spare tire), and 65.5 cubic feet with the seats folded.

Play some tunes: The stereo in the Sturgis Family Sienna is the bane of an otherwise nice family unit, so I was delighted to find the Prius' sound system was quite nice. It's not the best I've ever heard, but the sound was clear and full, and is worthy of an A-.

Tuning is controlled by a knob on the right and volume on the left, and an ebony touchscreen handles most of the rest of the functions. Changes were easy to make and I never encountered a problem trying to adjust options on the fly.

Where it's built: Aichi, Japan.

How it's built: Consumer Reports gives the Prius a better-than-average reliability rating for 2016, down slightly from years of top ratings.

In the end: The Prius remains a comfortable family car, and its fuel consumption is best suited to everyday commuting; it remains on my short list of I-wants.

ssturgis@phillynews.com215-854-2558