2017 Toyota Prius Prime First Drive

The Logical Replacement for the Camry as the Brand’s Primary Sedan

Todd LassawriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

Is the fourth-generation Toyota Prius hybrid irrelevant? It seems as if the car that became the darling of Hollywood Greens and early-adapter proletariat more than a dozen years ago with the advent of the MkII has evolved into just another high fuel-mileage car competing with a growing number of conventional-looking hybrid-powered midsize four-door sedans. Though the Hollywood types in particular are resistant to mainstream American brands, the Chevrolet Volt pushed the conventional hybrid Prius out of the Green limelight five years ago. As for Hollywood, there is Tesla.

Toyota presented its own solution just a couple of years ago. The first plug-in hybrid Prius was available only in California plus 16 East Coast states following the Air Resources Board zero-emissions mandate. Before the third-generation Prius was replaced with the MkIV, which launched about a year ago in conventional hybrid form, the last-generation plug-ins could be had for not much more than the standard MkIII Prius thanks to state and federal incentives.

The new plug-in, called Toyota Prius Prime, launches this fall in all 50 states with unique front and rear fascias and taillamps, a carbon-fiber hatch deck, and a double-bubble rear window. Not only does it look primed (sorry) to become the Prius standard bearer, it seems just the sort of thing to replace Camry as the brand's primary family sedan as buyers abandon that segment for smaller crossover/utility vehicles. Cheap gas or no, Toyota made a commitment a decade ago to become 100-percent hybrid by 2020. It looks likely there will be no new Prius v or Prius c, so the Prius, Prius Prime, and Mirai fuel-cell car will be Toyota's greenest models going forth as the rest of the lineup presumably gets hybrid power options.

The hatchback Prius/Prius Prime has had midsize sedan interior space since the second-generation. Now, it finally has a richer, more comfortable interior, a stiffer body structure, and a double-wishbone rear suspension instead of the economy car beam rear axle that cheapened the first three generations' ride quality. The front suspension is MacPherson strut.

We took a Sunday drive in the Prius Prime on a country road-like test track outside Tokyo. Toyota asked us not to disclose the test track's location, though we can tell you this: It would have been a hoot in the GT86 sports car.

First, we got a lap of the test circuit in the old Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid - a good thing, considering how little stick-time this reporter had in the car when it was first in the press fleet. The old plug-in Prius produced lots of clicking, whirring, tire noise and head toss. It's a bit of a buckboard on the circuit's rougher, roly-poly roads.

A drive in the latest conventional hybrid Prius prior to driving the Prime served as a reminder of how much better the new car's platform is. It's as if Toyota used all the money saved with by too-modest recent Corolla and Camry updates on this car.

The 121-horsepower, 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gas engine and continuously variable transmission are carryover from the standard hybrid and previous Prius. An 8.8-killowatt-hour battery pack juices two electric motors, and it's all governed by a one-way clutch connecting the motor-generator and the bottom of the crankshaft. The battery pack is 77 pounds heavier than the old Prius plug-in's, but also has twice the capacity.

The driver may choose from three modes: pure EV, which operates electric-only up to 84 mph with a 22-mile range; Hybrid mode; and EV Automatic, in which the system chooses the best combination of hybrid or pure-electric, depending on driving conditions. The gasoline engine kicks in while in EV mode if you exceed 84 mph or drain the battery.

While the 22-mile pure EV range falls far short of the Chevy Volt's 53 miles, the Toyota Prius Prime is a more balanced and more efficient car for a variety of driving conditions. Take the Volt on a longer trip, and once its battery is discharged, fuel mileage falls to an average of 42 mpg combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Toyota expects the Prime's combined EPA number to exceed the Prius' 52 mpg, and says the Prius Prime will achieve an EPA estimated 120 mpg-e, which compares to 106 mpg-e for the Volt. Total range will be 600 miles. Expect to wait 5-1/2 hours for a full recharge at 110 volts, or less than 2-1/2 hours at 240.

"The goal was to create a PHEV that does not need to be charged," says Kogi Toyoshima, chief engineer for the Prius and Prius Prime. Toyota began developing the new Prime plug-in in 2012, and more comfort was among Toyoshima's goals. The automaker is "seriously considering" making solar roof panels available in the U.S. They will be available, again, for the European and Japanese markets, but at an option price of about $3,000. Pricing for the Toyota Prius Prime will be announced closer to its fall introduction in the U.S.

A fully loaded Prius Prime with leather interior, optional 11.6-inch high-definition multi-media screen with multi-touch and swipe features, heated front seats, optional heated steering wheel and optional color head-up display looks and feels richer than any top-spec Camry or Corolla that comes to mind. It's a four-seat car, with a tall-ish load floor to make space for the batteries. Toyota says the 2+2 seating configuration was dictated by weight considerations. The Prime also comes with a heat-pump system and a battery warmer to toast the interior temperature during cold, Michigan-like winters.

Additionally, the Prius Prime also gets the full host of Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) features, which include automatic high-beam headlamps, advanced cruise control, pedestrian detection and lane-keeping alert with steering-assist.

On that 86-friendly country road-style test track, the Prius Prime felt planted, calm and smooth as we followed, more or less, the speed limits imposed on the various surfaces, conditions and corners. The Prime's dash scored us a 40 out of 100 in standard hybrid mode, 47 out of 100 in EV mode and 44 out of 100 in the EV auto mode, each after taking one identical lap. But then, Your Humble Servant was driving the car like gas was cheap (a lap in a Mirai earned a grade of 69/100).

If you've ever run on pure electric power with no radio on, you know how extraneous noises become obvious. The only thing the ear could detect in the Toyota Prius Prime was the squeal of the high fuel-mileage tires betraying the impending understeer before we could feel the understeer from the electric-assisted power steering. Transitions between electric and gas power were almost imperceptible. This is one quiet car.

Based on a limited drive at least, the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime has everything traditional consumers of quiet, comfortable, even premium midsize family sedans could expect, with the added feature of uber fuel mileage. The only concession to enviro-conscious convention is the origami fold sheetmetal and distinctive double-bubble rear hatch window. Toyota officially considers this styling handsome -- an unmitigated hit. Whatever you think of the Prime's design, you can't accuse this midsize Toyota of being vanilla. With careful pricing and continuing state and federal tax credits, the Prius Prime should become Toyota's mainstream passenger car for the coming decade.

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