Prius Prime Makes Toyota a Legitimate Plug-in Hybrid Player

By · October 06, 2016

Toyota has long been ambivalent about plug-in electric vehicles. The company’s efficiency strategy has mostly focused on conventional no-plug hybrids. That approach has defied industry expectations. After being dismissed as a gimmick, hybrids now sell in the millions and proliferate throughout the car market. Toyota itself now sells 13 hybrid models. The company has also heavily invested in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, a strategy that it acknowledges will take decades to fully materialize.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s forays into pure battery-electric cars have been and remain very tentative, while the plug-in version of the Prius—since its release in 2012 and until last year when it was discontinued—was not competitive in terms of all-electric range, the key metric. Yet, with the introduction of the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime, due in dealerships next month, Toyota’s hesitation with plug-in hybrids appears to be a thing of the past.

Change of Heart

The Prius Prime plug-in hybrid will offer a EPA-estimated all-electric driving range of up to 25 miles up and at speed up to 84 miles per hour. By roughly doubling the size of the battery pack, compared to the outgoing model, and letting that pack to be utilized to a greater great extent, Toyota corrected the biggest drawback of the outgoing plug-in Prius: an over-reliance on a gasoline engine even at relatively low speeds or during short trips. Toyota finally got the memo: EV fans don’t like internal combustion.

In its shift to a bigger-battery plug-in hybrid, Toyota borrowed somewhat from Chevy’s approach on the Volt. Of course, the 25 miles of all-electric mode on the Prius Prime is less than the first-generation Volt’s 38 or so miles, and way behind the second-generation’s 53 miles. But at least the Prius Prime is in the game, offering about the same as the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid’s 27 miles while beating the Ford Fusion Energi’s 19 miles.

We don’t have official EPA numbers yet, but according to Toyota, the Prime will be incredibly efficient with an overall fuel-economy rating of 133 MPGe—and around 54 MPG when in hybrid mode after the 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack is depleted.

As AutoBlogGreen reported last week, Toyota’s newfound plug-in hybrid religion might have resulted from a realization that the company had reached a point when its conventional no-plug hybrid technology hit a wall. It would be difficult for the same old conventional hybrid technology to break beyond the neighborhood of 60 MPG. “Ultimately, PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) may be the only way to go,” Shoichi Kaneko, assistant chief engineer for the Prius Prime, told Autoblog.

In other words, Toyota can utilize everything that has made its conventional hybrids so successful—such as a big family-sized hatchback format and the company’s tried-and-true reliability—but up the ante with greater utilization of plugging in.

If at the same time, the Prius continues to look a bit dorky and drive somewhat like an appliance with clunky brakes, so be it. The formula works. Hardcore Prius fans might argue that the 121-horsepower Prime is slightly sportier than previous Prius generations (and looks more exciting), but taking 11 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour is hardly exhilarating.

Attractive pricing is also part of the formula. The Prime might have less than half the EV range of the Chevy Bolt, but starting at about $27,000 before incentives, it’s $3,000 less than the outgoing Prius Plug-in Hybrid—and at least a few thousand less than the Volt after incentives. Toyota also loaded up the Prime with a ton of desirable high-tech features, including a Tesla-esque tablet-like 11.6-inch HD multimedia screen on the dash. The long list of other enhancements—from its carbon-fiber hatch and longer body to its automatic braking, lane-departure alerts, and various EV/hybrid modes—keeps it competitive with the field.

Toyota finally has a vehicle that plug-in buyers—especially ones not ready to pony up for a pure electric—should put high up on their shopping list. Unfortunately, the company took a step backwards by providing room for only four passengers. This has been, and still somewhat continues to be, an obstacle for the Chevy Volt, so it’s too bad that the Prime only has room for two in back.

Nonetheless, Toyota now has a legitimate plug-in hybrid. Toyota will likely continue to push the all-electric capability of not only the Prius Prime, but potentially all its hybrids. It’s not hard to imagine in the near future a Toyota or Lexus showroom full of models allowing commuters to use clean grid-supplied electricity for nearly all their trips—while still providing the ability to take road trips by making the very occasional visit to a gas station.

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