The Toyota Prius is an icon – but it isn’t known for being flashy or fun to drive. Enter the 2016 Prius, which has been redesigned from the ground up to offer better performance, head-turning looks, and landmark efficiency. We put the new Prius through its paces last week and found that it eclipses its predecessor in practically every way – read on for our first look.

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Three words describe the Toyota Prius: practical, economical, efficient. That’s the formula that helped Toyota establish the segment nearly two decades ago – and it’s become the baseline for most hybrid cars on the market. But now every automaker has a hybrid in its stable – and Toyota needed to up the ante to stay competitive and attract new buyers.

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They started with the exterior: the new Prius looks positively wild. Toyota took the car’s familiar pyramid shape and sharpened the angles, dropped the height, and stretched the length. All told, it’s 0.8 inches lower, 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider, and it has the world’s lowest drag coefficient (.24) for a mass-produced vehicle. The new Bi-LED headlights are pitched at a feral angle, and the flashy tail lights jog out at the sides before dipping into long, toothy points.

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Beneath the skin, the 2016 Prius touts Toyota’s New Global Architecture platform. This gives it a lower center of gravity, an agile double wishbone suspension and a 60% boost in body torsional rigidity. For those who don’t speak car, these features translate into better handling and make the Prius more fun to drive. Toyota also calls the new Prius “the most efficient car you can buy without a plug.” That’s due in large part to an updated hybrid system that pairs smaller, lighter components with a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine with over 40% thermal efficiency.

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We tested the fourth generation 2016 Prius against the third generation 2015 Prius and found the two cars to be worlds apart. The new Prius is much more agile, and its pick-up is noticeably peppier. It’s not a sports car by any standard, but Toyota was able to inject the hybrid with enough life to please drivers looking for efficiency and performance. It’s quieter too, thanks to an insulating laminated windshield, new sound absorbers, and a thicker floor silencer pad.

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The interior is bright and open with a wider field of view thanks to streamlined pillars and huge windows. The new 4.2-inch full-color TFT displays are light years ahead of the old monochrome screens, and we love the monolithic center console with slick tone-on-tone knobs. The blobby white plastic gear shifter is another story – it stands out in every trim color and looks a bit like a kitchen appliance.

Watch the new 2016 #Toyota #Prius automatically brake to prevent a collision.

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The 2016 Prius is also a showcase for the automaker’s suite of autonomous driving technologies. The Toyota Safety Sense package includes pre-collision braking for cars and pedestrians, lane departure alert with steering assist, and dynamic radar cruise control – a must for bumper-to-bumper commutes. We tested the automatic braking system on six occasions with stationary and moving obstacles and it performed flawlessly every time.

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The 2016 Prius will be available in six trims, and pricing will range from $24,200 for the Prius Two to $30,000 for the Prius Four Touring (which features upgraded 17-inch wheels). Every model above the base Prius 2 has a new lithium-ion battery that is 40% lighter and 38% smaller than the old nickel-metal hydride battery.

In terms of mileage, the standard model is estimated to get 54 city / 50 highway / 52 combined, while the Eco trim packs the lighter battery and drops the spare tire for an estimated 58 city / 53 highway / 56 combined. Toyota set out to redefine an icon with the 2016 Prius, and by all accounts they’ve succeeded.

+ Toyota Prius

Photos by Mike Chino for Inhabitat