Toyota has been openly skeptical about the market potential for plug-ins. The carmaker dipped its toes into the market several times—with limited releases of two RAV4 EV models, an electric version of the iQ minicar (which failed to reach production) and the original Prius Plug-in—but Toyota remains mostly committed to gas-electric hybrids and the multi-decade rollout of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
With the 2017 Prius Prime—which despite the name change is effectively the second-generation Prius Plug-in—Toyota is joining the growing pack of automakers positioning plug-ins as more than mere low-volume experiments. It's a capable, affordable and sizable hatchback that will keep your gasoline usage to the bare minimum.
The Toyota Prius continues to be the quintessential hybrid gas-electric, more than 15 years after its introduction. Every aspect of the Prius—from its drivetrain to its shape—has been fine-tuned for maximum fuel economy. Critics have long disparaged the Prius’s dorky wedge-shaped silhouette, even as others in the industry mimic its aerodynamic profile.
The Prius is less of a sore thumb on roads these days—especially after the 2016 model spiced up Prius styling with sharper angles, attempting to offer hints of a more muscular, less efficiency-obsessed car. The fourth-generation gas-electric Prius’s coefficient of drag hasn’t increased—it actually fell slightly to 0.24—but the midsize hatchback now conveys a touch more attitude.
The Prius Prime aims to dial that attitude up further with a more sculpted front fascia sporting a blacked-out grille and strips of LED fog and tail lights. From the back, the Prime adds a sweeping curvature to the geometric look of the fourth-gen hybrid model.
One look at the Prius Prime tells you that it’s no longer intended to be simply a Prius that plugs in. It’s positioned as the special premium Prius.
Toyota boosted the drivability of the 2016 Prius with a stiffened chassis and improved suspension. The Prime will also allow for electric-only driving at speeds of up to 84 miles per hour. That means drivers can stay in electric mode at speeds 22 mph higher than before, providing spirited highway maneuvering that won’t add to your gas consumption.
The higher electric-only output is available thanks to significant changes to the car’s powertrain configuration. Where the Prius Plug-in was capable of using either its larger 60-kilowatt motor or the smaller motor/generator, depending on which mode it was operating in, the Prime can use both motors at the same time—vastly increasing power output from the battery alone. Top power output in electric-only mode used to translate to slightly above 80 horsepower, but in the Prime, it’s grown to more than 91 hp.
Nobody expects great acceleration from a Prius, and the Prime stays on script with zero-to-60-mph run in the calm 10-second range. Of course, the raison d’etre of the Prius, in all its forms, is to save fuel—not provide driving excitement. If a more visceral connection with your ride is critical to you, the Prius Prime (like other models in the lineup) might not be the car for you.
With the Prius Prime, Toyota addressed the main knock on its predecessor: a small battery and puny electric range. The Prius Prime provides an EV-only range of 25 miles thanks to its 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack—which doubles the capacity of the former 4.4-kWh pack. Granted, 8.8 kWh is still small compared to some competitors—most notably the Chevy Volt—but the high overall efficiency of the Prime makes up the difference. The Prius delivers 54 mpg when running on gas compared to the Volt's 42 miles per gallon.
Thanks to the jump to 25 miles of all-electric range, the Prime achieves an overall 133 MPGe rating. That makes it one of the most efficient vehicles on the road, even when compared to full battery-electric cars.
Real world fuel economy, of course, depends on usage. If your driving patterns tend to yield shorter trips with frequent opportunities to charge in between, the Prius Prime could almost completely eliminate gas station trips from your routine.
The Prius Prime charges in about 5.5 hours from a standard 120-volt household outlet and in a little over two hours from a Level 2 charging station.
Some drivers might find the Prius Prime’s small battery liberating compared to other plug-ins. If you miss a chance to charge you’re only losing (at most) 25 miles of electric range, and with a fully drained battery, the car can still (according to its EPA rating) get 54 mpg in fuel economy. That's impressive.
Many shorter range plug-in hybrid owners choose to skip the hassle and expense of installing a Level 2 charging station in their homes. Since the vast majority of electric vehicle charging is done overnight—leaving plenty of time to reach capacity using a 120-volt outlet—reducing charge periods down to a couple hours is usually not necessary.
The most notable change to the interior of the Prius Prime is Toyota’s decision to turn the car into a four-seater. This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher, particularly as the Prime’s leading competitor, the Chevy Volt, goes in the opposite direction with its second-gen model.
One of the most common complaints about the original Volt was that it seated just four passengers. The Volt’s large T-shaped battery pack bisected the cabin to created a hump where a fifth passenger would otherwise place their legs. Chevy was so eager to remedy this that it added a cramped, fifth semi-seat that’s only really recommendable for small children and adults willing to contort themselves for the sake of a short ride.
The Prius on the other hand—while not the most comfortable car in the world for rear middle riders—has always been a real five-passenger vehicle. The fourth-generation 2016 Prius redesign continues to seat five, though the Prime does not. Evidently, Toyota feels that not only is a fifth seat not necessary in this particular vehicle but it’s actually better off without one. (For what it’s worth, Toyota says removing the seat helped to lighten the vehicle.)
In addition to the seating configuration, the Prime distinguishes itself from the non-plug Prius with technological amenities like an optional 11-inch touchscreen display. In terms of range, performance or exterior styling, no one would ever mistake the Prime for a Tesla, but Toyota is offering consumers Tesla-ish infotainment amenities should they choose to pay for them.
The Toyota Prius Prime earned the highest Top Safety Pick Plus designation from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). To qualify for Top Safety Pick, a car needs to earn a rating of good in five tests—small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints. The vehicle must also have an available front crash prevention system that earns a rating of advanced or superior.
The Prius Prime offers a number of standard safety features included in Toyota’s Safety Sense P suite, including collision alerts, automatic braking and dynamic cruise control. Optional safety features include head-up display, automatic high-beams, and blind spot and cross-traffic monitoring.
The 2017 Prius Prime Plus is attractively priced just under $28,000, including destination charge. The Prime’s Premium trim level starts at $29,665, and the top-tier Advanced begins at $33,965. If you consider the $4,000 federal tax credit, the plug-in Prius provides its 25 miles of all-electric capability while potentially undercutting the price of a conventional Prius by a couple thousand dollars. In fact, it’s the least expensive plug-in hybrid on the market.
The base Prius Prime Plus uses a 7.0-inch color infotainment display with an integrated rearview camera and navigation, USB port, and phone and music connectivity through Bluetooth. Also standard is Toyota Safety Sense P, which bundles full-speed adaptive cruise control, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with steering assist, and automatic high beams. Cloth covers the heated seats, push-button start is standard, and fog lights add a nice design feature to the exterior. With no spare tire, three years of roadside service also come standard.
The mid-level Prius Prime Premium gets faux-leather seats, including an 8-way-power adjustable driver's seat, keyless entry, and Qi compatible wireless smartphone charging. Notably, it also gets the desirable big 11.6-inch infotainment screen. Move up to the Prius Prime Advanced to get that screen, controlling a premium JBL sound system. The Advanced also brings a remotely controlled climate control system, heated multi-function steering wheel, color head-up display, blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and backup sensors with parking assist.
The Prius Prime is available in all 50 states. If you plan on shopping for a Prime in an area where Toyota dealers may not be as familiar with plug-in hybrids, you may want to do a little extra research before hitting the dealership. This preparation, which might make you more knowledgeable than the sales staff, will allow you to fend off questions about spending more up front than a conventional hybrid—and help you stay resolute about your commitment to own a car that’s even more efficient and green than Toyota’s iconic gas hybrids.