For all the talk about alternative fuels, gasoline doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Engine: 1.8L four-cylinder, dual-drive electric motor, 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery
Power: 121 net system horsepower
EPA Fuel Economy (MPG): 55 city, 53 hwy
Can Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 4.3 city, 4.5 hwy (estimated)
US Price: $27,965 - $33,965 (destination included)
CAN Price: Unavailable
It powers about 90 percent of the vehicles on the road today, and with pretty good reason. Without the hassle of range anxiety and long charging times that plague full electric vehicles, or the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen cars, gasoline may not be the most efficient fuel source, but it’s still the most convenient. And until that changes, there’s a sweet spot with cars like the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid that relies on the best of both worlds for an efficient ride that leaves range anxiety at the curb.
Plug-in by Any Other Name
Toyota execs say the name Prime was chosen for its implication of excellence, but don’t let it confuse you: This is the plug-in hybrid variant of the latest version of the Toyota Prius fuel misers have been waiting for. It combines the same 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and electric motor found in the standard Prius with the added bonus of a much larger battery pack that’s good for about 25 miles of all-electric driving.
It also differs from the plugless Prius with its dual-motor electric drive system. While the electric motor itself is the same as the one found in the Prius hybrid, it actually features two electric generators, one to drive the wheels, the other to charge the battery, and a nifty one-way clutch is employed in the Prime that allows both to send power to the wheels in EV mode for smoother and more responsive acceleration.
ALSO SEE: 2016 Toyota Prius Touring Review
Other changes include the car’s battery, which has seen its capacity doubled to 8.8 kilowatt-hours compared to 4.4 kWh in the last version of plug-in hybrid, while a battery warmer keeps the lithium-ion unit at an internal temperature above 32° F (0° C) for optimal operation. The battery’s charger has also been made smaller, shrinking from about a third of a cubic foot to a little more than one tenth. Despite the charger’s smaller dimensions, its output has been increased from two kilowatts to 3.3 kW, helping reduce charging times to 4.5 hours using a standard household outlet and about two hours when plugged in to a charging station. The charger has also been moved from under the cargo floor to under the rear seats in a bid to increase cargo capacity.
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Like the standard Prius, the Prime has a whole host of driving modes that can be used to balance battery and fuel consumption. Selected using buttons next to the joystick-like shift lever on the center stack, EV, Hybrid and EV Auto modes adjust the type of power that is delivered, while Normal, Eco and Power modes adjust throttle response. EV mode will run on battery power until it’s empty, while EV Auto will rely mainly on electric power, using the gas engine when it’s more efficient to extend the battery’s life. Hybrid mode, meanwhile, uses the gas engine as its main source of power, with the battery playing a supplementary role.
Starting the day in EV mode, our tester easily came close to its advertised 25 miles of electric driving range, this despite an ill-advised jaunt on the highway, where electric power isn’t best suited.
What Range Anxiety?
The biggest problem plaguing electric vehicles is range anxiety — the sweat-inducing fear of running out of battery power halfway home. Being a hybrid, this issue doesn’t exist for the Prius Prime, with the added bonus of at least some all-electric driving ability. With about 25 miles (40 kilometers) of pure electric range, it can’t touch the likes of the Nissan Leaf (107 miles/172 km) — or even the Chevrolet Volt (53 miles/85 km) — when it comes to driving on electrons, but the 1.8-liter gas engine quells all fears of unplanned stops, working in conjunction with the electric motor and battery pack to provide a combined driving range of about 640 miles (1,030 km) on a single battery charge and a tank of gas. Better still, the Prime offers a fuel-sipping combined consumption rating of 54 mpg (4.4 L/100 km), a number our tester easily eclipsed, albeit slightly, for a returned average of 54.7 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) after a day of cruising around Southern California.
A Prime Looker
Like virtually Prius models before it, the Prime’s looks are polarizing, to say the least. The plug-in model’s styling builds on the fourth-gen Prius introduced last year, but adds design elements that soften that car’s extremes, including sleek new LED headlights and tail lights, redesigned front and rear fascias, and a curved rear window that improves both form and function. The car is also longer than the standard Prius, with 4.2 inches added to accommodate the Prime’s larger battery pack and related electrified internals. Despite the added dimensions, it still comes up short when it comes to cargo volume, with 19.8 cu-ft (561 liters) behind the rear seats compared to 24.6 cu-ft (697 L) in the standard Prius. Blame it on the larger battery pack, which raises the load floor substantially, making it more comfortable to put items in the trunk, but relegating taller items to the back seat due to the lack of floor-to-ceiling space. Adding to the disappointment is the Prime’s rear seating, which only includes room for two passengers.
Elsewhere inside, the Prime has the same basic look and feel as the standard Prius, with one notable exception: The available 11.6-inch touchscreen that dominates the center stack. Equipped on Premium and Advanced models, the massive screen can be operated like a smartphone, responding to tapping, pinching and swiping actions to navigate through the simplified menu choices and adjust the climate controls. Base models come with a smaller seven-inch touchscreen and hard buttons for climate control, while all Prime models feature a pair of 4.2-inch upper screens in place of a traditional gauge cluster where relevant drive information is displayed.
Whether on the highway or around town, the improvements to the Prius’s driving characteristics are felt almost immediately. Like the standard Prius, the Prime is built on a new, stiffer architecture and features an independent rear suspension setup. The result is an extremely smooth ride, aided by the weight battery pack mounted low beneath car, that almost floats over road at highway speeds. Despite the propensity to glide along the asphalt, the Prime does feel more engaging than the last Prius plug-in, though it does drive more like a bulky sedan than a pocket-sized compact. Of course, it isn’t meant to be driven hard, but rather tamely. Feather the throttle and the Prime will reward its driver with near silent electric acceleration, and the improved regenerative brakes will slow the car gently while putting power back into the battery for later.
Driving a Hard Bargain
Despite the improvements over the last plug-in Prius, the Prime gets a significant price reduction. About $3,000 has been shaved off the base model — now known as the Prime Plus — for a sticker price of $27,100 (the base model will likely come in at about $33,000 in Canada), and that’s before any government incentives are applied.
ALSO SEE: 2016 Chevrolet Volt Premier Review
Adding to the Prime’s value proposition is the list of standard safety and convenience features across the trim range, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, pre-collision alert with pedestrian detection and automatic braking, navigation, a rearview camera and heated front seats. Top-of-the-line Prime Advanced models, meanwhile, add a self-parking system that handles steering into and out of parallel and perpendicular spaces, along with blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, a heated steering wheel, a 10-speaker JBL audio system, and a remote climate control system that can be activated from a paired smartphone.
The Verdict: 2017 Toyota Prius Prime Review
The Toyota Prius Prime isn’t the most efficient plug-in on the road, but it does offer a decent amount of pure electric driving and an impressive combined driving range in a comfortable and convenient package. And until alternative fuels become a reality for the masses, the Prius Prime is a great compromise when it comes efficiency and usability.