The opening photo tells the story: when Jen Smith needed to replace her faithful 2006 Toyota Prius, she ended up buying the new fourth-generation Prius that debuted this year.
But before making this decision, she reached out to Green Car Reports to ask about her options.
This article has been adapted from a number of e-mails back and forth offering suggestions and responding to them during her evaluation and shopping process.
It started in late April with this note:
Would you mind giving me your opinion regarding the best fuel efficient cars in 2016? My Prius battery is dying, and I am looking to get a new car. I have loved the Prius for 10 years and have about 160,000 miles on it.
My inclination is to just get another one but I have read that there may be big changes in the 2017 hybrids and so I am also wondering if I should wait? I don't really know what I would do in the interim but I could probably figure something out.
The Tesla Model 3 that was just released looks like a fun car but I don't particularly want to wait two years for it or whatever crazy timeframe is expected. My priorities are: good gas mileage, heated seats, a sunroof (if possible), and safety.
2017 Chevrolet Volt
Working for a open-spaces organization, Jen is aware of green issues, so we thought there should be a plug-in car in the mix.
We also knew she was comfortable with compact to mid-size cars and with hatchbacks, didn't require all-wheel drive, and occasionally needed to drive long distances on short notice.
We responded as follows:
"First, have you had a competent hybrid shop look at the battery in your Prius? It may be possible to replace a few cells or modules. Failing that, a used battery pack may let you get a few more years out of the car at far lower cost than a new model.
"Second, assuming you need or would like a new car, the 2016 Prius is all new and a much better vehicle than the previous incarnation.
"It's nicer to drive by far and you can often forget that you're in a hybrid—which I found almost impossible in its predecessors given their performance characteristics.
"So replacing your current Prius with the new fourth-generation model is a safe bet, and you'll get a nicer car out of it. Also, given cheap gas, hybrids aren't exactly flying off the shelves these days, so your dealer may be willing to bargain a bit more than usual, even on a brand-new Prius model.
"However, there are two plug-in hybrid options you should seriously consider. The Prius Prime is the plug-in hybrid version of the new Prius, with an EPA-rated electric range of 22 miles.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime, 2016 New York Auto Show
"It'll arrive at dealers by the end of this year, and lets you do a substantial amount of driving solely on electricity—though we haven't driven it yet, so we don't know how strong the traction motor is and how often the engine has to kick on.
"And, if you don't need to carry five people, we highly recommend considering the current Chevrolet Volt, with a 53-mile all-electric range.
"It's a fantastic car, with a quiet cabin, good power and handling, and in my eyes, a very crisp and stylish exterior design—whereas the new Prius looks are definitely in the eye of the beholder.
"The Volt beat the (conventional) Prius for our Green Car Reports 2016 Best Car To Buy award. And we compared the two cars in a video as well."
Jen Smith with her new 2016 Toyota Prius Four
Jen's first update wasn't surprising; like many shoppers, she was most comfortable with what she knew:
I have been looking mostly at the Prius so far because I love Toyota and have had such good luck with my car. The new Prius body style is a little too trendy or I don't even know what the word is...too stylized for my tastes.
Oh, I have also wanted a Toyota because I love the dealership where I bought the last one. That being said, I really like the Chevrolet Volt. I just started looking into it since your email, but I like what I see.
She followed up shortly afterward with a question about a new candidate:
What about the 2016 Honda CR-Z?
2016 Honda CR-Z
Our response to that, along with some other queries:
"The CR-Z is only a two-seater and it has very, very little luggage space. Also, it's an old vehicle that'll be canceled or replaced in the next couple of years, and very low-volume so parts could be a bit more of an issue.
"But, seriously, it's tiny inside—and yet its mileage ratings are no better than your current Prius, which is much bigger.
"If you're looking to save money, you can get pretty good deals on the 2016 Prius C, which is a subcompact four-seat hatchback that's still rated at 50 mpg.
"It's crude compared to even your current Prius, but has the space you need and starts at around $20K. Also it's more conventional looking, if a little basic inside.
"Still, consider a Volt. You can plug in for about 50 miles of travel, not burn any gasoline during that time, and it's cheaper per mile. While the car itself is much pricier ($34K and up), you get a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit."
2016 Toyota Prius C
After mulling over these thoughts, Jen responded that the Prius C didn't have heated seats, which were her highest priority—"well, okay, my #2 priority behind gas mileage." (It does offer them, actually, in the top-of-the-line Prius C Four version.)
More car shopping ensued, and then she wrote this:
I looked at cars yesterday, and I think I am going with the Prius Four. The Chevrolet dealer I went to only had the high-end Volt, and the interior feels really small and cave-like.
I like the Prius interior better than the Volt, and—I know this will probably make you cringe—I can get a moonroof and heated seats, both of which seems pretty awesome to me, all for somewhere around $30,000.
I'm going to make some calls tomorrow to see about price and availability.
I also think that because I have loved my Prius so much I am reluctant to change. Maybe it's a go-with-what-I-know mentality. I will keep you posted.
In the end, Jen bought a 2016 Toyota Prius Four in Blizzard Pearl (white) for a price that came in just under $30,000 before taxes, title, and license.
Jen Smith with her new 2016 Toyota Prius Four
She picked up her new car from Lithia Toyota in Springfield, Oregon, on May 26th. Three weeks ago, she wrote:
At 450 miles, I'm getting 54 mpg! The moon roof and seat warmers are fantastic and it drives quite nicely, with more acceleration than the old Prius.
Also, I sold my 2006 Prius to a coworker. He paid the difference between the blue-book value and the cost of the replacement battery, so I made a whopping $478.
But I get to see it in the parking lot at work and he's super-excited to be driving it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this article ran, Jen contacted us with her very latest update:
With about 1,000 miles on the car, I am getting 58 mpg. Yay!!!!