I know what you're thinking. A Prius. For Road & Track. Why? Well, the Prius is a big deal. Toyota has shipped 3.5 million of the things since it created the first in 1997. It's the primary reason everyone from Chevrolet to Porsche now offers a gas-electric hybrid. It's the reason most people even know the term "gas-electric hybrid." But there's another reason: the fourth-generation Prius is actually kind of fun.
By "fun" we certainly don't mean "pretty." Customers demanded something more visually dynamic, and you'll definitely have no problem telling the new Prius from old, but that's because the 2016 car is significantly uglier. Those weird rear quarters might not be easier on the eye but they certainly ease through the air. Toyota claims the new car's 0.24 coefficient of drag (down from 0.25 Cd) makes it the most slippery of any production car.
We also can't say the new Prius is quick. Zero to 60 mph takes 9.8 seconds, according to Toyota, and you'll want to take their word for it rather than try it for yourself. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder has been slightly revised and shifts through a smaller CVT automatic, but it still complains loudly when you ask a lot of it. It also belatedly switches over to lithium-ion batteries, which are now under the rear seat rather than in the trunk. (The basic Prius Two still gets a nickel-metal-hydride battery.)
But thread the Prius down a twisty road and the steering precision and body control will be mind-blowing to anyone who's driven the old car. That steering is almost an entire turn quicker lock-to-lock, meaning you can flick through a left-right transition without having to dislocate your shoulder joints. The car is slightly longer but rides lower, and you sit lower inside. It still leans like a Moto GP bike in really hard turns, and the eco-tires remain as grippy as a grandma's handshake, but the Prius now feels happy on these roads. Instead of gritting your teeth through bends, willing the road to straighten up, you almost find yourself disappointed when it does. That said, the Prius will happily cruise on the highway, where its new independent rear suspension affords a far more relaxed ride than before.
The new cabin reinforces these real-car vibes. Thicker insulation under the floor, sound absorbers in the dash structure, and a sound-insulating laminated windshield help cut decibels. Upscale trim grades get noise-killing front windows, too. There are fewer hard plastics and the Porsche-like sloping console is gone, improving the sense of space. The lower cowl, smaller quarter-window frames, and bigger rear window massively improve visibility.
For all these improvements, the hybrid doesn't make any quantum leaps in its primary mission. Preliminary fuel economy figures tick up to 54/50 mpg city/highway from 51/48 mpg. Combined mileage improves to 52 from 50 mpg. The EV capability is still modest—do anything more than breathe on the gas pedal and the engine will chime in. Hypermilers can go for the new Eco grade, which has better aerodynamics and loses 65 lb in part by ditching the spare tire to post billboard-worthy fuel economy of 58/53/56 mpg.
Even in this era of cheap gas, efficiency's still the primary reason to purchase a Prius. But Toyota seems to realize it can't be the only reason. The Prius still isn't our kind of car, but it's a much better one.