G. Chambers Williams

Toyota’s 4th-generation Prius hybrid for 2018 ranges from $24,685-$30,565

Toyota completely redesigned the regular Prius hybrid model two years ago, bringing the fourth generation of the trendsetting gasoline-electric vehicle.

For 2018, the newest version returns with prices starting at $24,685 (plus $920 freight) for the base Prius Two Liftback.

Other trim levels are the Prius Two Eco ($25,165), Prius Three ($26,735), Prius Three Touring ($28,115), Prius Four ($29,685), and the Prius Four Touring ($30,565), which we tested for this report.

These prices and trim levels do not include the Prius Prime, which is a plug-in hybrid version of the standard Prius, with prices ranging from $27,300-$33,300 (plus freight). The Prime model was introduced for 2017.

The regular Prius Liftback does not have plug-in recharging capability for its hybrid battery system, which is automatically recharged while the vehicle is operating on gasoline power or coasting.

With the makeover, the Prius improved on the already great combined 50 mpg EPA rating of the model it replaced. EPA fuel-economy estimates are 54 mpg city/50 highway/52 combined for the regular Prius Liftback models, and 58/53/56 for the Eco model, which is not to be confused with the Prime plug-in model.

Although not the first hybrid to be introduced in the U.S., the Prius is the one most associated with the hybrid phenomenon. Toyota says it expects to sell upwards of 350,000 a year of the car worldwide, even with the current relatively low gasoline prices putting a damper on hybrid sales. Most of the sales will come in the U.S. and Japan, the biggest markets by far for hybrid vehicles.

Prius, introduced in 2000, entered the new generation with a radically new design that makes it look more like a typical Toyota car than an odd-looking model that screams “I’m a hybrid.” It’s still readily identifiable as a Prius, though, in part because its rear end is still quite similar to that of the previous generation.

Toyota did a major restyling to make the car look more mainstream, a move brought about by falling sales over the past several years, attributed mostly to lower gasoline prices. Although gasoline prices have now rebounded slightly, there were about three years of relatively low fuel prices that affected sales of hybrids and other smaller economy cars with great gas mileage.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive system has two versions: one for the Prius Two, with a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack; and a different one, with a smaller lithium-ion battery pack, for the Prius Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring models.

Under the hood of all models is a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle inline four-cylinder engine with 95 horsepower and 105 foot-pounds of torque, boosted by a 600-volt DC motor/generator that produces 71 horsepower and 120 foot-pounds of torque. The gasoline engine and electric motor working together produce a total of 121 horsepower.

There is an electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission, and the car has front-wheel drive.

Surprisingly, there is plenty of power, which can be directly attributed to the low-end torque generated by the electric motor on startup or hard acceleration.

We drove the Prius on a variety of road types, including winding country lanes with and without pavement, and with varying degrees of slope. There was never a worry that we did not have enough power, even on some uphill runs and while passing on two-lane roads.

The latest Prius was the first vehicle to be based on Toyota’s new global vehicle architecture, which is meant to underpin a large variety of the automaker’s products. This version is longer and lower than the third generation, with a sleeker overall appearance. The sporty design is supposed to convey a feeling of forward motion, Toyota said. The hood is lower, and the roof peak was moved forward.

Overall, it is 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower than the previous model, and it has a lower center of gravity for better road handling. Handling also is helped by the new rear double-wishbone suspension and a more-rigid body.

Bold character lines run along the sides, and the car got some stylish new exterior features, including LED headlights and LED rear combination lights.

Seven exterior colors are offered, including the new Hypersonic Red ($395 extra), along with Blizzard Pearl, Sea Glass Pearl, Blue Crush Metallic, Magnetic Gray Metallic, Classic Silver Metallic and Midnight Black Metallic.

There is a new premium interior with a wrap-around dash design, form-hugging seats, less-complicated controls and improved visibility.

Our Prius Four Liftback Touring model had the Hypersonic Red with Moonstone SofTex interior trim, which included two-tone black and Moonstone (very light gray) seats and bright creamy white colored center console upper surfaces and steering wheel center trim. The light trim provided a stark contrast to the black parts of the cabin.

The newest Prius still has a hatchback configuration for cargo-hauling convenience, and room for up to five people to ride comfortably.

The cargo area behind the back seat has 24.6 cubic feet of space in the Prius Two, Three and Three Touring models, which come with a temporary spare tire that takes up some of the cargo space; and 27.4 cubic feet in the Prius Two Eco, Prius Four and Prius Four Touring models, which have a tire repair kit instead of the temporary spare.

The new Prius was among the first U.S. Toyota models to include the Toyota Safety Sense system, which is now standard on all Prius versions. This new multi-feature advanced safety package includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and automatic high beams.

Also standard on the Prius Four and Four Touring are remote keyless entry with pushbutton start, and rain-sensing variable intermittent windshield wipers. Both Touring models (Three and Four) come with integrated fog lights and accessory lights, 17-inch/five-spoke alloy wheels with P215/45R17 tires, and unique rear bumpers.

Prius Four and Four Touring models have the faux-leather SofTex-trimmed heated front seats, contrast stitching (blue stitching on Touring only) with seatback pockets; an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar support; four-way adjustable front passenger seat; and a cargo cover.

The Prius Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring models also get the Toyota Entune Premium Audio system with navigation and App Suite, which includes the Entune Multimedia Bundle (seven-inch high-resolution touch screen with split screen display, AM/FM CD player, six speakers, auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPhone connectivity, advanced voice recognition, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, music streaming via Bluetooth, Siri Eyes Free, HD Radio, HD predictive traffic and Doppler weather overlay, AM/FM radio, satellite radio with three-month free trial, Gracenote album cover art, and integrated backup camera display. Access to Entune App Suite services is subscription free.

Besides Toyota Safety Sense, the Prius includes the Toyota Star Safety System with Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control, traction control, antilock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist, Smart Stop Technology, front seat-mounted side air bags, a passenger seat-cushion air bag, driver’s knee air bag, front and rear roof-mounted side-curtain air bags, child-seat anchors, tire-pressure monitoring and a Vehicle Proximity Notification System.

Also included are a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert (Prius Four and Four Touring only) and Hill Start Assist.

Available on the Prius Four and Four Touring is the Premium Convenience Package ($1,205, included on our tester), which adds extras such as Intelligent Clearance Sonar with Intelligent Parking Assist, a premium JBL audio system, and Safety Connect, similar to the General Motors OnStar system, which includes Emergency Assistance, Stolen Vehicle Locator, Roadside Assistance and Automatic Collision Notification.

Total sticker price for our 2018 Prius Four Touring Liftback was $33,085, including freight and options.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com or on Twitter @gchambers3.