The Car Connection Toyota Prius Overview
The Toyota Prius Prime is a plug-in hybrid version of the fourth-generation Toyota Prius, the world’s best-known and highest-volume hybrid-electric car. It was launched for the 2017 model year and succeeds the discontinued Prius Plug-In Hybrid model, sold from 2012 through 2015, but it’s a different and much-improved vehicle in many ways.
The Prime is a derivative of the newest Prius, which arrived for the 2016 model year. With the Prius Prime, Toyota has attempted to tone down some of the shapes that may have been awkward on the Prius. While the Prime retains the basic shape of the conventional Prius, it has new front and rear styling that slightly moderate the design and, to many eyes, look better than its non-plug-in sibling.
That includes more horizontal rear lights, a subtly twin-domed rear liftgate window, and a slightly more conventional front end with four small rectangular projector headlights on either side.
MORE: Read our 2017 Toyota Prius Prime review
The Prius Prime is EPA-rated at 25 miles of electric range, and 54 miles per gallon combined when operating as a conventional hybrid once its battery range is depleted. Continuing advances in lithium-ion cell capacity could also give the Prime a higher electric range sometime during its six- or seven-year life.
Moreover, its energy efficiency is rated at a remarkable 124 MPGe. That matched the BMW i3, with its advanced carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic structure, and indicates just how parsimonious the Prime is not only gasoline but also with electrons. (MPGe, or Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, is a measure of how far a car can travel electrically on the same amount of energy as is contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.)
Like the regular Prius, the Prime pairs a high-efficiency 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine with a pair of electric motors to power the car. The combined powertrain output is rated at 121 horsepower, Toyota says, which means it's hardly a speed demon. But one key decision makes the Prime decisively different from the Prius: its designers defaulted the car into electric-only mode if its battery has any charge remaining above that needed to operate as a conventional hybrid (which it does after the battery is depleted).
That turns the Prius Prime into an electric car over its first 20 or 25 miles, not the combined electric-and-gasoline vehicle that its predecessor was. That decision sets the Prime apart from all other plug-in hybrids except the Chevrolet Volt, which similarly runs solely in electric mode until its battery capacity is depleted. All other mass-priced plug-in hybrid competitors—including the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and soon the Kia Optima—switch on their engines if the driver demands maximum power. Granted, they offer an EV-only mode, but Prius Prime drivers must take a specific action if they don’t want electric-only operation.
On the road, while the Prime isn’t as strong in electric mode as the more powerful Volt, it keeps up with most traffic. On various test-drive loops, our test cars delivered at least 25 miles. In gentle use at lower speeds, they appeared to offer higher range yet, potentially as much as 30 miles.
That hardly compares to the current Volt’s 53 miles, but it’s a far cry from Prime’s predecessor. The 2012-2015 Prius Plug-In Hybrid’s 11-mile electric range was so low, and its 60-kilowatt (80-horsepower) electric motor so weak, that it even heavy breathing could kick on the engine, or so it felt to hapless drivers attempting to stay in electric mode.
Once the gasoline engine kicks on, the Prius Prime essentially turns into a heavier version of its hybrid sibling. That is, its engine and electric motors combine seamlessly under most circumstances, but when maximum power is required, the engine spins up to high speeds and moans noticeably from up front under the hood. Otherwise, the Prime shares the improved roadholding, handling, and comfortable ride of the conventional Prius.
Inside, the Prime is comfortable for four people, but unlike the regular Prius, it does not seat three in the rear, with the center position occupied by a hard plastic cupholder. All but the base version of the Prius Prime share the 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen that differentiates it from a regular Prius. It’s similar in design to the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell sedan, underscoring its maker’s two approaches to zero-emission vehicles—although it's clear that Toyota will sell far more Primes than Mirais over the next five years.
No safety ratings have yet been released for the Prius Prime, although last year's conventional Prius hybrid received the coveted Top Safety Pick+ designation from the IIHS for its crash performance, with the top rating of "Good" on every test. It also received an overall five-star rating from the NHTSA. A rearview camera is standard.
Toyota is including a comprehensive suite of electronic active-safety features in every Prius Prime. Those include forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and automatic high beams. In addition, Toyota adds blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert to the Prime Advanced, the highest of three trim levels.
The Prius Prime is offered in three trim levels, with the Prius Prime Plus as the base and the mid-level Prius Prime Premium as the likely volume seller. The base car comes with cloth-covered heated front seats, heated mirrors, steering-wheel audio controls, and navigation. The Premium trim adds the 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen display, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar adjustment, and a Qi wireless charging pad, among other features.
The top Prime Advanced trim adds a heated steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, LED fog lights, remote activation of climate control via mobile-phone app, and a color head-up display for speed, vehicle information, and navigation instructions.
Unlike its predecessor, the Toyota Prius Prime will be sold in all 50 states. Sales started in late 2016. It qualifies for a $4,500 federal income-tax credit, and in California, it qualifies for both a $1,500 purchase rebate and the coveted single-occupant access to carpool lanes on freeways.