We have admired each new generation of the Prius hybrid-electric vehicle for innovation and the ability to deliver stunning fuel-economy even when driven with reckless abandon. It made our list in 2001, 2004 and 2010. But competition is tougher now.

Dozens of excellent HEV and plug-in competitors lurk in the marketplace, two of which make our 2016 list. Plug-ins also enjoy generous government incentives that enable them to be more price-competitive.

But Toyota engineers have come through again with the ’16 Prius, setting new benchmarks in drivability, efficiency and value.

Raw EPA numbers can’t be ignored: The ’16 Prius hatchback delivers the best fuel economy of any vehicle without a plug: 54/50 mpg (4.4-4.7 L/100 km) city/highway. The Prius Two Eco model – our test car – boasts an astonishing 58/53 mpg (4.0L-4.4 L/100 km) city/highway and 56 mpg (4.2 L/100 km) combined, thanks to weight reductions and enhanced aerodynamics.

Six editors driving a total of 160 miles (257 km) on varied routes average about 46 mpg (5.1 L/100 km), which would be impressive in any other car. We suspect this relatively low average in the Prius is the result of abusing the power mode button, which definitely puts the fun in the functionality of the car.  

“Nothing watered-down about responsiveness, I was able to dart around traffic and annoy other drivers with confidence,” says editor Jim Irwin.

Editor Tom Murphy is surprised by the eco-unfriendliness of his colleagues. He turned the car in after a 50-mile (80 km) city/highway jaunt with 61 mpg (3.9 L/100 km) showing on the trip computer, and he says he did nothing out of the ordinary.  

Another industry benchmark is Toyota’s retuned high-volume 1.8L 4-cyl. Most engines have a thermal efficiency of about 35%, with the best a few points higher. By continuously improving combustion, heat management and reducing friction, the Atkinson-based 2ZR-FXE in the Prius is the first gasoline engine in the world to achieve maximum thermal efficiency of 40%, Toyota says.

Besides the many technical advances, editors are most impressed with the propulsion system’s smooth power delivery and excellent NVH mitigation.

In previous models, it felt like the gasoline engine and electric motors were passing torque back and forth like a hot potato. This year, judges all mention on their scoresheets how seamlessly the new Prius delivers power to the front wheels, feeling more like an electric car most of the time, rather than a parallel hybrid. And then there is the price, an affordable $25,000 or so.

“This is state-of-the-art for high-mpg hybrids,” sums up editor Bob Gritzinger.

dwinter@wardsauto.com