End of model year roundup: 2015 Toyota Prius and 2015 Nissan Altima

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End of model year roundup: 2015 Toyota Prius and 2015 Nissan Altima
Image Credit: David Lardner
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Clark mentioned the 2015 Toyota Prius in a video and I was just finishing up a week testing a 2015 Prius, so it seems like a good time to review it and another efficient sedan, the 2015 Nissan Altima.  Both are slated for a complete redesign, but that doesn’t mean that the outgoing models don’t have something to offer.

Full disclosure: Both Toyota and Nissan wanted me to drive their cars so much that they delivered fully fueled and sparkling clean examples of these cars to my driveway. Other than that courtesy, I received no compensation for this review.

What the Prius has to offer

2015 is the last model year for the third generation of Toyota’s popular Prius. The first car that brought the idea of the hybrid drivetrain to the public and sold in large numbers has been redesigned for 2016. So, as the third generation Prius takes its final bow, is now the time to buy or should you wait for the fourth generation?

That all depends on a number of factors. If you find the current model to your liking in terms of styling, you very well might want to buy now.  There are end of the model year savings to be had.  Additionally, cheap gasoline has substantially cut into the sales of fuel-efficient cars so that adds to potential savings. However, if maximum efficiency is your prime motivation, then you very well might want to wait for the new model.

First, let’s look at the 2015 model. This version has the styling that we all associate with the Prius. It has the iconic shape with the long, sloping hatchback with the split window in back. While it’s not the most beautiful car on the road, it’s looks are clean and, to some degree, very pleasing to the eye. There’s ample room for five inside and the view from the driver’s seat is good with all the controls neatly packaged in a design that wraps around the driver’s seat. The back seats fold down and make plenty of room for luggage and golf clubs. Even a couple of bicycles will fit without too much trouble!

The power plant in the third generation Prius is Toyota’s now ubiquitous Hybrid Synergy Drive that couples a 98 hp, 105 lb-ft torque, 1.8 liter four cylinder engine with an 80 hp, (60 kW) electric motor with 153 lb-ft torque.

For those unfamiliar with the way hybrids work, the electric motor helps offset the need for the gasoline engine to do all the work. So, at an intersection, while driving at a slow speed with little need for excess power or coasting, the gasoline engine is shut down to conserve fuel and reduce tailpipe emissions. A 1.31 kWh battery provides power to the electric motor and is recharged by the gasoline motor or through braking by recapturing kinetic energy, which in a typical car, is lost by the brakes converting that energy to heat. In the case of a hybrid, that kinetic energy is recaptured by the electric motor doing double duty as a generator so, when the driver presses the brake pedal, the electric motor/generator provides resistance that slows the vehicle and recharges the hybrid battery. This is known as regenerative braking.

Because a hybrid system works by shutting down the gasoline engine when power isn’t needed constantly, the most optimal environment for operation is slower speeds and stop and go traffic. So, while normal vehicles tend to get better fuel economy at higher speeds in freeway conditions, a hybrid will often get better mileage in the city.

In the case of the 2015 Prius, those numbers are 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. That’s pretty good mileage and the vehicle I tested was frequently able to achieve even higher numbers in the city. Getting upwards of 60 mpg on some trips was entirely attainable. Even freeway trips where speeds were kept between 60 and 65 mph yielded numbers greater than the EPA estimates.

One very nice feature the Prius offers is the ability to enter the price per gallon after filling up the tank so, when the car is turned off after each time it’s driven, the car reports the fuel economy and the amount driving that distance cost. While this is not a must have feature, it was pretty entertaining and, in a small way, it coaches the driver to be more a more efficient driver.

Speaking of driving, the experience behind the wheel is really quite pleasant. The seating is quite comfortable and offers a surprising amount of give which is a really nice change after having driven so many cars with rock-hard cushions. The view out is very good and our tester’s optional power driver’s seat offered enough adjustability that anyone should be able to find a comfortable position.

2015 Toyota Prius vs. 2015 Nissan Altima: Who wins? The test car was equipped with the optional ‘Head up display’ that projects a selectable amount of information to a small area of the windscreen directly in front of the driver’s line of sight. This allows the driver to see the speed of the car and, if selected, certain information about how the motors are being used and/or energy is being recaptured. The Prius isn’t the only car to offer this feature, but it’s well done and can be turned off if the driver finds the image on the windshield distracting.

Like the second generation, the view out of the back window is compromised by a split back window. It takes a while to get used to this oddity but it does become less obtrusive as the miles pass.

Another feature that the test car had was radar-controlled cruise control. This type of system is not unique to the Prius and is gaining popularity in many other cars as well. The way these systems work is pretty simple once the concept is understood. The driver switches on the cruise control and sets it to a specific speed. Like any cruise control, it holds the speed of the car at that set speed. Where it differs is when the car approached another car that’s traveling at a slower speed. This is where the radar part comes in. The car senses the car in front and automatically slows to keep one of three pre-programmed (& driver selectable) distances behind that car. If the driver pulls into another lane that’s free of traffic, then the car automatically speeds back up to the originally set speed. This system works flawlessly in the Prius. Think of it as semi-autonomous driving.

Speaking of semi-autonomous driving, this same radar system also in employed to detect imminent collisions with objects in front of the car and help prevent collisions by automatically applying the brakes. I had the opportunity to test this system and it works very well, too. However, it’s nothing to rely upon completely, but it’s nice to know that there is a possibility that an accident caused by an inattentive driver can possibly be avoided.

The base price of the 2015 Prius is $24,200 but as Clark mentioned, low gas prices have slowed sales and it’s possible to by one for substantially less. The very well equipped and SofTex (a leather substitute) lined test vehicle came in at an astounding $38,147 and lacked the optional sunroof so it’s clear the price could have gone even higher. That’s a lot of money. In fact, at that price there are plenty of larger and more prestigious cars available. There are even all-electric cars that cost less. But, when it comes to high fuel efficiency and low emissions, the Prius is pretty much in a class of its own.

What Prius would you buy?

Because no Prius is stripped, consider a more basic model unless there was an absolute need for the high-tech features found in our test car. By leaving the SofTex, the $4,320 Advanced Technology Package and the $1,599 upgraded wheels and tires on the table, a nicely equipped Prius can be had for $26,985 — and there’s likely savings to be had off that price. And, because even the base Prius represents a significant step up in price from Toyota’s other fuel-efficient offerings like the Corolla and the Yaris, there are diminishing returns by going with a top-of-the-line model. The smart buyer will stick with a simpler base model and pocket the savings.

Another option is the Plug-in Prius though that car is not available in all markets. In this model of the Prius, the standard nickel metal hydride battery pack is replaced with a larger lithium ion battery and the ability to plug in and charge. The plug-in feature yields 11-13 miles of all electric driving…so long as the driver isn’t a speed demon. While it’s certainly nice to have this option, if you must go the plug-in hybrid route, pick the Chevrolet Volt over this particular model because the current 2015 Volt offers 40 miles of all electric driving, similar versatility and falls into approximately the same price range.

What’s next for the Prius?

The 2016 Prius was shown to the press for the first time last week and it is a complete redesign of model though the basic idea of the car remains the same. The car is now based on what Toyota calls the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that will be shared with other new Toyota models.

On the outside, however, the new car’s design can best be described as evolutionary. So, while the basic shape of the Prius is maintained, styling cues from Toyota’s latest design language are apparent. Some of those styling cues are lifted from Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai. The Mirai is a car that can best be described as a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ design and certain elements that give it that unique appeal are brought over to the new Prius.

The efficiency of the Prius is expected to be increased by 5% over the outgoing model and it’s roomier. There are rumors that a new plug-in version will provide up to 35 miles of all-electric driving so that’s a huge improvement over the outgoing plug-in. But, this new plug-in has not been confirmed. However, this comes just as Chevrolet introduces its latest Volt, which may offer up to 53 miles of all-electric driving. So, again, Chevrolet has the advantage but Toyota will, if the rumors prove true, significantly narrow the gap. Also, the Prius will be significantly more efficient than the Volt once the electric range is depleted and the car is running in hybrid mode. That will be a plus for those who cover many miles a day.

Will Prius buyers be turned off by the new styling cues in the latest offering? Probably not. Prius drivers are a fiercely loyal bunch and they buy these cars because they’re efficient and offer extremely low tailpipe emissions. They’re willing to pay a bit more over cars that, while not as efficient, have narrowed the gap between conventional cars and hybrids.

Read more: When placing a factory order for a car makes sense

The 2015 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL

Speaking of conventional cars, there are few that can be better described as conventional that the mid-sized sedan. And, lodged firmly within the usual best sellers is the Nissan Altima. Like the Prius, the 2105 Altima is slated for a complete redesign for the 2016 model year.

Just one look on the road shows how big a hit Nissan has with the Altima. They are everywhere. There’s good reason for this as it offers a tremendous bang for the buck because, at a glance, the Altima looks very much like a Q40 from Nissan’s up-market brand, Infiniti.

Nissan’s press department graciously sent over a fully decked out 2015 SL model equipped with the 2.5 liter, four-cylinder engine. In this case, fully decked out means leather seating with heated power front and passenger seats, a heated steering wheel, moon roof, satellite navigation with a 7-inch screen, XM satellite radio, Nissan Connect (which allows certain smartphone apps to interact with the car), Blind Spot Warning System, Lane Departure Warning, Moving Object Detection and a host of other nice features.

While no semi-autonomous features were installed on this car, features like the Blind Sport Warning System and Lane Departure Warning are a newer class of safety features that many buyers are finding to be worth the money because they can, in certain cases, reduce stress while driving in heavy traffic or during long drives.  Truth be told, these safety features worked very well.  In particular, the Blind Spot Warning System was very handy in heavy freeway traffic.  It’s included with the Lane Departure Warning System and Moving Object Detection, XM Radio and Nissan Connect with the 7-inch screen for $1,000.  As safety/technology packages go, that’s not a bad price and any purchaser would be wise to, at the very least, consider adding it.

Read more: 3 new car technologies that help reduce accidents

Driving the car was pleasant.  It’s not the type of car that could be called exciting and, quite frankly, neither are any of its competitors. The Altima comes standard (as many Nissans do) with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The best way to think about a CVT is that it either has one speed (gear) or an infinite number of speeds (gears).  In essence, a CVT is constantly adjusting its drive ratio to best keep the engine in its optimal and most flexible power range.  What Nissan has done to make this transmission feel more like a conventional automatic transmission is to put artificial ‘shift points’ that are felt during hard acceleration.  While it does make the driving experience similar to what the average driver expects from an automatic transmission, it still feels a bit awkward and certainly the artificial nature shows.

Overall, the Altima is a very comfortable cruiser and it eats miles of road effortlessly. Its cabin is quiet and most of the materials feel of very high quality and certainly comparable to the competition. The front seats are very supportive and arguably, compared to those in the Honda Accord, much more comfortable.

Rated at 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway with 31 mpg combined, the Altima is toying with fuel economy numbers that, only a few years ago, were pretty good for a subcompact car. In fact, this particular example was capable of 40+ mpg if speeds where kept in the 65 mph range. That’s pretty remarkable for a gasoline powered, midsized sedan.

Base price is around $23,000 and the fully loaded 4 cylinder I tested was $31,600.

If saving money is more important than having the latest styling, then both the outgoing Prius and Altima may very well offer very good savings to be worth considering over the 2016 models.  So, if you’re in the market for a small or midsize sedan and both comfort and economical operation are high on your list of must haves, then both of these cars are worth checking out.

Read more: 9 cars that consume too much oil

For more money-saving auto advice for your wallet, see our Cars section.

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David Lardner About the author:
David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center. He is also an active board member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.
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