The Toyota Prius Prime plug-in is the best hybrid the automaker sells. Equip a Prius Prime the same way as the popular regular Prius hybrid, and the difference is less than $1,000. With the Prius Prime, even if you drive 20-25 miles to work and back daily, you’ll be running exclusively on cheap electricity during the work week. Because it’s a Toyota, it comes standard with an excellent safety suite called TSS-P. Even as a compact car, the Prius Prime is reasonably comfortable for four adults. And it was adequately quiet and comfortable on the highway. This is a solid, Corolla-size vehicle that happens to be a hybrid.
How the Prius Prime Works
All Prius Prime models combine the same front-drive layout, an 8.8-kWh, 265-pound lithium-ion battery pack with an EPA range of 25 miles, two electric motor-generators, and the “bridled fury” of a 95-hp 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four gas engine (descriptor courtesy of Car and Driver). Total output, gas and battery, is 121 hp. The planetary gear system effectively works as a continuously variable transmission.
Hop in the Prius Prime and it shares many features common to the Prius and few other cars: The layout is flowing and modern. The instrument panel, what’s usually behind the steering wheel, is in the center top of the dashboard. Some will take a while to warm to it. The center console includes a shiny white plastic tray. There’s a nubby blue-knobbed shifter attached to the dashboard. The Prius Prime delivers leisurely 0-60 acceleration times of about 10.5 seconds with all systems running, and about two seconds more on battery power only. A Tesla this is not.
If the battery pack is full, the Prius Prime starts up in EV mode–or you can push a dashboard button for hybrid mode and mostly run on combustion engine power. A separate EV Auto button lets the car decide when to run in hybrid or EV power. There are also Eco, Normal and Power modes. Eco makes the car accelerate slower; Power seems a bit quicker than Normal at doling out horsepower. In city or highway driving, there’s enough power, but this is not the car for passing on two-lane highways. In my driving, I found the battery mode was good for just over 20 miles. Once EV mode is effectively used up, the battery still has enough power to run in hybrid mode, or what Toyota calls charge-sustaining mode. Reverse is an electric-only mode.
Urban Runabout That Can Take Long Trips
I tested the 2017 Prius Prime (which shipped spring 2017) and the 2018 Prius Prime should be essentially the same. It is an offshoot of the fourth-generation Prius that launched as a 2016 model. The test car was comfortable and quiet in the way most modern compact cars in the 180-190-inch long range are. There’s only so much a compact car with a short wheelbase can do to avoid pavement bumps. Front and rear seating is reasonable for adults. There is no middle rear seat on the Prius Prime; the mainstream Prius seats a fifth passenger snugly in the middle rear.
The Prius Prime is best described as a city and suburban car that can go on long trips, since it’s not saddled with being a pure battery-electric vehicle as the similarly sized Tesla Model 3 or smaller Nissan Leaf are. EV purists may not like that the Prius Prime in EV Auto mode jumps back and forth from gas to electric, but they can’t complain about the single-tank range: 500-plus miles. Officially, it’s rated at 54 mpg combined city-highway and 133 mpg-e, a measure of the efficiency of the electric drive. MPG-e measures how far you can go electrically on the equivalent of the 115,000 BTUs in one gallon of gasoline, which is equal to 33.7 kilowatt hours of electricity. Charging takes 5.5 hours on 120 volts, or 2.2 hours on 240 volts.
The Prius Prime Trim Walk
The Prius Prime comes in three trim lines, or model variants.
- The base Prius Prime Plus, $27,995 list including $895 freight, comes with a 7-inch center stack LCD, Toyota Entune audio, navigation, an app suite, and TSS-P, Toyota’s suite of safety features: lane keep assist, stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and a pre-collision/pedestrian detection system with automatic braking. The only option (on all three trim lines) is premium paint ($395) on two of the six exterior colors.
- The Prius Prime Premium, $29,695 list, adds a Tesla-like vertical LCD (11.6 inches diagonal), Qi smartphone charger, and nicer seat trim.
- The Prius Prime Advanced, $33,995, further adds blind spot detection (not available as an option below Advanced), head-up display, parking sonar and parking assist, and LED fog lamps.
Toyota’s Entune infotainment system is workmanlike, but not state of the art, and it doesn’t scale to offer more utility on the bigger screens of the Premium and Advanced. Entune doesn’t support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Instead, Toyota is working on a competing, open-source spec called SmartDeviceLink, announced at CES 2017. Ford, Subaru, Lexus, Mazda, and Lincoln are also on board. (Some other makers may support SDL and CarPlay/Android Auto.)
Prius Prime: Should You Buy?
The plug-in hybrid market is small, for now. The top sellers are the Chevrolet Volt with 16,710 sales through October, the Prius Prime with 16,682, Ford’s aging Fusion Energi midsize sedan at 8,026, and the Ford C-Max Energi compact hatchback with 7,181. In comparison, Toyota reported 10-month sales of the Prius sedan at 55,443.
If you’re comparing the Prius hybrid sedan, good for 2 miles of electric driving, with the Prius Prime good for 20-25 miles, we see the Prius Prime as a better deal–especially for commuters who can fit most of their daily commute within that range. Falling back to traditional hybrid mode, it’s rated at 53 mpg, and between BEV and EV drive, one tank of gas will take you 500-plus miles. With that kind of mpg, it’s as good as any car for long-distance driving in terms of economy.
The plug-in Chevrolet Volt costs several thousand dollars more, but it also has twice the battery range, an EPA-rated 53 miles. The other PHEV worth looking at is the Hyundai Ioniq, which can be had as a plug-in hybrid with an 8.9-kWh battery (almost the same as Prius Prime), traditional hybrid, or pure EV.
The Prius One, Two, Three, and Four and Touring refer to the trim lines of the mainstream Toyota Prius. The Prius Three is closest to the Prius Prime Plus. The Prius C is a smaller hatchback vehicle. The Prius V is a Prius station wagon/crossover with a bigger cargo area. (There is no Prius Prime wagon.) If you need more capacity than that, go for the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.
Our recommendation: If you’re looking at a hybrid, look at plug-in hybrids, too, especially Volt, Ioniq once it’s available in December, and Prius Prime. All told and comparably equipped, the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is close to the regular Prius on price, is essentially the same on mileage, and it takes you 20-25 miles on battery power, which for many people would be the majority of their daily driving. Toyota has sold some 2 million Priuses; they’re mainstream vehicles now. From our perspective, the Prius Prime plug-in should be the flagship of the Toyota Prius fleet.
Often we recommend the top trim line to get the most, best tech. Here virtually everything you need for safety and driver assistance is on the entry-level Prius Prime Plus via Toyota Safety Sense-P except for blind spot detection, which is only on the Prius Prime Advanced for $6,000 more. We hope Toyota decouples blind spot detection from Prius Prime Advance and rolls it into TSS-P sooner than later.
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