2017 Toyota Prius Prime

6.5
2017 Toyota Prius Prime

The Basics:

The new plug-in version of the fourth-generation Toyota Prius hybrid launched a year after that car, and it got a new name too. The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime succeeds the previous and discontinued Prius Plug-In Hybrid model, sold from 2012 through 2015, but it’s a much-improved and quite different vehicle. The Prius Prime is offered in three trim levels: Plus is the base, the mid-level Premium will likely be the volume seller, and Advanced is the high-end, all-bells-and-whistles model.

The 2017 Toyota Prius closes the gap between "driving a hybrid" and "driving a normal car," even though it still looks like nothing else on the road.

We've rated the Prius Prime at 5.8 out of 10, with high scores on our green scale and for features, but lower scores for design and performance. It's almost important to note that it has only four seats, unlike the regular Prius, with the center of the rear seat occupied by a hard plastic cupholder. We haven't yet rated it for safety, though we expect it to do well based on the high ratings given to the regular Prius and its generous complement of standard electronic safety systems, with a few more optional as well. (Read more about how we rate cars this year.)

Design

The conventional 2016 Prius hybrid had the remarkable distinction of styling so bizarre that its predecessor looked staid in comparison. The new plug-in Prime retains the basic shape and wheelbase of the 2016 Prius, but heavily revised front and rear styling that moderates the design in ways that, to many eyes, look better. The front end is a bit more conventional, though Toyota says it's "more aggressive," with four small rectangular projector headlamps on either side. At the rear, a subtly twin-domed rear liftgate window sits above rear lights that follow its curved shape along the horizontal, eliminating the outboard vertical lights of the regular Prius.

Green

The biggest surprise of the production Prius Prime may not have been its EPA-rated electric range of 25 miles, though that's higher than the 22 miles Toyota attributed to it earlier this year. Nor was it the 54 miles per gallon combined when operating as a conventional hybrid once its battery range is depleted.

Instead, the statistic that stood out was its energy efficiency, rated at a remarkable 124 MPGe. That equal the best version of the BMW i3, with its advanced carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic structure, a considerably pricier car. And it shows just how parsimonious the Prime is with both gasoline and 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.)

Performance

As in the the regular Prius, a high-efficiency 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine with a pair of electric motors powers the Prius Prime. Their combined output is rated at 121 horsepower, Toyota says, making it far from a speed demon. But one key decision distinguishes the Prime from the conventional Prius: its engineers have defaulted the car into electric-only mode unless the battery is out of charge (beyond that needed to operate as a conventional hybrid, which it does after the battery is depleted).

That makes the Prius Prime an electric car over its first 20 or 25 miles, not the blended gasoline-and-electric vehicle its predecessor was. And it separates the Prime from all other plug-in hybrids except the Chevy Volt, which also runs in electric mode only until its battery capacity is depleted. Every other mass-priced plug-in hybrid competitors—including two from Ford, one from Hyundai, and soon one from Kia—switch on their engines whenever the driver demands maximum power. Prius Prime drivers must take a specific action if they don’t want electric-only operation, the reverse of those other cars.

Electric-only operation

The Prius Prime isn’t as strong ­­in electric mode as the more powerful Volt, but it can keep up with most traffic when driven to the limits of its electric power. Our test cars delivered at least 25 electric miles on various test loops, though admittedly there was little highway travel and the weather was temperate. Driven gently at lower speeds, the Prime could well offer ranges potentially as high as 30 miles.

The Chevy Volt still leads that measure, with a rated 53 miles from a battery twice as large, but it's a far cry from the anemic 2012-2015 Prius Plug-In Hybrid’s 11-mile electric range. That car's 60-kilowatt (80-horsepower) electric motor was so weak, and its tendency to kick on the engine so strong, that it felt to hapless drivers attempting to stay in electric mode that even a deep breath could trigger the engine.

The Prius Prime essentially turns into a heavier version of its hybrid sibling when the engine does finally turn on after the 20 to 30 miles of battery-only travel. Under most circumstances, its engine and electric motors combine seamlessly. Still, 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.

Comfort and quality

Inside, the Prime is comfortable for four people, but it's missing even the fifth "seating position" that lets the Chevy Volt accommodate a lithe, uncomplaining teen on a padded battery hump for short trips. Toyota's engineers say the decision to eliminate that fifth seat was in the interests of maximizing range and efficiency.

The rear seats will accommodate two adults, though the load bay is shallower than that of the conventional Prius due to the battery pack and other electronic gear underneath it. Interior materials are a mix of hard plastics and soft-touch surfaces, though they don't convey a particularly premium impression. Still, build quality on the early cars that we drove was impeccable, and there's that legendary Toyota reliability to factor in as well.

All but the base version of the Prius Prime share the 11-inch vertical touchscreen display 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.

Safety

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.

Features

Of the three trim levels available, the base Prius Plus comes with cloth-covered heated front seats, steering-wheel audio controls, heated mirrors, and a built-in navigation system as standard.

The mid-level Premium trim is likely to be the most popular version, and Toyota has carefully specced it out to add a suite of features that will appeal to the middle of the market. The Premium trim gets a striking 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen display in its center display, reminiscent of the huge screen in Teslas but closer in actuality to the Volvo Sensus system in its newest luxury cars. The Premium version also comes with an 8-way power adjustable driver's seat that includes power lumbar adjustment, and a Qi wireless charging pad, among other features.

At the top of the heap, the Prime Advanced trim adds a color head-up display for speed, vehicle information, and navigation instructions, a heated steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, LED fog lights, and a mobile-phone app that allows remote activation of climate control and provides various operating data and services.

Sales of the Prius Prime started in late 2016. Unlike its predecessor, the Toyota Prius Prime will be sold in all 50 states. All prime versions qualify for a federal income-tax credit of $4,500. In California, they are eligible for both a $1,500 purchase rebate and the coveted single-occupant access to carpool lanes on freeways.

Buying Tips:

Buyers tempted by the least expensive Prius Prime Plus should at least test the much larger touchscreen display in other trim levels to appreciate the difference.

Other Choices:

  • 2017 Chevrolet Volt
  • 2017 Ford Fusion
  • 2017 Hyundai Sonata
  • 2017 Toyota Prius
  • 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

Reason Why:

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is a better plug-in hybrid than many electric-car advocates had feared, and a large part of that is its default electric mode. Still, its 25 miles of EPA-rated range are less than half that of the Chevy Volt's 53 miles. The Volt is also better-looking to many eyes, faster, and more upscale in feel and trim, though several thousand dollars more expensive as well. Both the Ford Fusion Energi and the Toyota Sonata Plug-In Hybrid are plug-in versions of conventional mid-size hybrid sedans, with less radical styling than the Prius Prime and the Volt, both five-door hatchbacks. For those willing to sacrifice a gasoline engine backup altogether, this year's premier choice is clearly the Chevy Bolt EV electric car, also a five-door hatchback, rated at a whopping 238 miles. But for many buyers who head directly to Toyota, the strongest competitor to the Prius Prime may be the conventional hybrid Prius next to it on the showroom floor. Its styling is stranger, but its fuel economy is about the same and it's less expensive—though only the Prius Prime gets the coveted California carpool-lane sticker.

The Bottom Line:

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is a decent electric car for 20 to 25 miles, and then a very efficient Prius after that, and it's aggressively priced to boot.

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