Second Drive: 2017 Toyota Prius Prime

A plug-in that plays the long game

Eric Weinerwriter The Manufacturerphotographer

This is a crap time to launch a plug-in hybrid. Gas prices are low, and SUVs and pickups are all the rage. Despite big improvements to the standard Toyota Prius hatchback in just about every way for its latest, fourth-generation version, Toyota has seen more of a sales drizzle than the hurricane that hit when the Prius was redesigned in 2003. But if Toyota knows one thing, it's that low oil prices won't last forever, and the state of ease at the pumps is no reason to delay launching the all-new plug-in hybrid 2017 Toyota Prius Prime.

"PHEVs may be down 20 percent year-over-year, but we do this for the long haul," said Toyota sales vice president and general manager Bill Faye. "You can't just think about what's going on today."

The Prius Prime today is ready for its maiden voyage on some of Southern California's most desirable roads. Toyota could have been cautious and not given us our first impression of a plug-in Prius on a twisty route better suited for sports cars, but it has confidence in the Prime. Beyond the car's improved fuel efficiency, interior capacity, and leaps in technology, Toyota also turned its "greenest" car into something other than the compact penalty box it once was.

Sticking to the hybrid strategy

Other automakers aim toward the future as well, but Toyota has the Chevrolet Volt in its sights here. But while the Volt is engineered and marketed as an EV with an onboard gasoline range extender, the Prius Prime takes a different approach.

Like the Prius Plug-In it replaces, the Prime is more a hybrid with some all-electric capability than a true-blue EV. While the Volt can cover 53 miles on a single charge before its gas engine kicks on, the Prime will dispatch just 25 miles before switching into hybrid mode, where it operates much like the standard Prius hatchback. The Prime uses the same 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine as its hybrid sibling, paired with an electric motor and a planetary continuously variable transmission for a total output of 121 horsepower. New for the Prius Prime is a one-way clutch that allows both the electric motor and now the generator, previously used purely for auxiliary and starting functions, to be used for drive force.

Juice comes courtesy of a new 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery that's twice the size of the unit used in the old Prius Plug-In, which offered only 11 miles of all-electric range. While 25 miles might not seem like much, Toyota says it's enough to cover the daily round-trip commute for more than half of Americans. Charging takes less than five-and-half hours using a standard 110v outlet, and about two hours using a 240v charger.

Compared to the Volt, the kicker for the Prime is that once the battery is kaput, you'll still benefit from the excellent efficiency and low emissions of a hybrid, particularly in the city. The EPA rates the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime at 133 mpge when operating in all-electric mode, and at 55/53 mpg city/highway when running as a hybrid. After the Volt runs out of electric energy it returns only 42 mpg upon activating its gasoline-powered range-extender. Total range for the Prius Prime clocks in at an impressive 640 miles, compared to 420 miles for the Volt.

Green driving a la mode

The Prius Prime will run in pure EV mode in more situations than before. Drivers can use a group of buttons on the center stack to switch between EV, HV, and EV Auto modes. In all-electric mode the Prime can run at speeds up to 84 mph, although you'll run through the battery pack pretty quick to get there and maintain that speed. EV Auto defaults to the electric motor in most cases, but will automatically tap the gas engine if it's more efficient.

HV mode will slowly restore battery capacity, but you can hold down the HV button for three seconds or so to speed up the process. The car will switch into Charge mode, relying primarily on the gasoline engine for driving force. In this mode, Toyota's chief engineer for the Prius, Koji Toyoshima, says the Prime will restore 80 percent of battery capacity in 30 minutes. If you're on the highway and running low on EV range before heading into the city, it seems like a no-brainer. Toyota engineers tell us that within a few years, when the Prime is due for its mid-cycle refresh, we'll see even more EV range as a result of improved energy density in batteries.

Electric thrust from the Prime's motor provides enough smooth torque for on-the-fly maneuvers in traffic, but you'll definitely want the help of the gas engine in hybrid (HV) mode when merging onto the highway. Acceleration is still about as heart-pounding as an episode of Frasier (the Prime needs roughly 11 seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph), but nonetheless it doesn't feel dreadfully underpowered getting up to speed. As before, the magic of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive is the completely invisible handoff between the electric motor and combustion engine.

 Futuristic or freakshow?

 If the powertrain is a perfectly paced waltz, the Prius Prime's new look is the record scratch that makes everyone turn heads at attention. Living somewhere in the design space between the extruded new Prius and the bizarre-looking Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, the Prime is a not a pretty car, but it definitely stands out. And in this respect it works; for years Toyota was dinged for its stale and blobbish designs, developed with the imagination of a doorstop. You can't say that about the Prius or the Prius Prime any longer, whether or not you like it.

While the Prime maintains the same profile as the standard Prius, it gets unique front and rear fascias, a longer and more aerodynamic roofline, and a distinctive dual-window trunk with a sultry LED taillight design. It achieves a slippery drag coefficient of 0.24, which is slightly better than the standard model's 0.25. Up front, quad LED headlights pair with standard adaptive high beams. The Prime is 6.5 inches longer than the standard Prius, mainly to make room for the lithium-ion battery, now mounted lower and further back than in the outgoing Prius Plug-In. Cargo volume in the Prime suffers by 7 cubic feet compared to the standard Prius hatchback, and the load floor is a fair bit taller.

The experience inside the Prime is, by contrast, one of clarity, order, and simplicity. There is little in the way of ornamentation or drama, as the door panels and dashboard sit largely unadorned, and there are blessedly few buttons on the small, fat steering wheel. A handy phone, available wireless charging, sits next to the gear shifter, perfect for keeping your phone within reach but not flying around in a cup holder.

Build quality, especially given we were driving pre-production models, felt excellent and a step above the Volt's. Forward visibility is good, thanks largely to a useful extra pair of quarter windows ahead of the A-pillars, as well as a pleasantly low beltline. Looking around there is a lot of glass, and the dual-pane rear window offers excellent rear views through the trunk, in a manner similar to the second-generation Honda CRX.

The trunk frame is, no joke, made of exposed carbon fiber. While this is to some degree a marketing boon, the trunk door is easy to lift and close. Toyota says that in conjunction with the aluminum hood, the carbon fiber trunk frame saves eight pounds.

Seating is limited to four passengers, one fewer than in the regular Prius. While the practical reason for this decision is largely to save weight so the Prime could meet its efficiency targets and fit the larger battery pack, the benefit is a more spacious and upscale experience for the rear passengers. Shoulder room and legroom are fine for normal-sized adults, but taller folks may have to deal with less-than-ideal headroom as a result of the Prime's relatively fast roofline.

Aping Tesla, for better and worse

As a result of the simple interior design, you direct much of your attention to the Prime's two multifunction displays. First is the dashboard-integrated horizontal instrument cluster, a design cue modified from the outgoing Prius generation, allowing the driver to cycle through various vehicle data ranging from the speedometer to infotainment functions and detailed summaries of fuel efficiency or power delivery. It's a bit disconcerting at first for the driver to see mostly naked, empty space where the instrument cluster would be in most vehicles, but you soon get used to it. The speedometer, in particular, is helpfully positioned closest to your forward eyeline, and top-trim Prius Prime Advanced models come with a crisp-looking head-up display.

The real showstopper, though, is the new 11.6-inch tablet-like touchscreen standard on mid-grade Premium trim levels and up. (Base Plus models get the 7-inch screen from the normal Prius.) Straight out of the Tesla playbook, the screen dominates the center stack, flanked by capacitive touch buttons to handle additional functions like volume. Tech geeks will love the new screen, and the system feels legitimately advanced, especially for a mainstream brand like Toyota. And while the touchscreen is responsive and designed cleanly with minimal clutter and great functionality, it's inherently distracting. Despite Toyota's efforts to consolidate functions like navigation to the top of the screen to keep the driver's line of vision as close to the road as possible, moves like these constitute Band-Aids. People already look at small screens on their phones while behind the wheel, so when you put an iPad in the middle of the interior, people are going to play with it instead of drive.

Tech galore

There are a lot of other goodies to play with as well. Critically, all versions of the Prime get standard Toyota Safety Sense P, which includes pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control. Entune audio and app suite is standard, complete with navigation, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and voice recognition on all models. On the base Plus model Toyota serves up heated cloth seats as standard, heated mirrors, a backup camera, and keyless entry. Step up to the Premium model for power front seats with leatherette surfaces, Qi wireless charging, remote A/C, and an upgraded Entune system.

Top-trim Advanced models get a JBL premium audio system, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a color head-up display, intelligent parking assist, and more. Advanced models also have access to a litany of remote vehicle functions, operated by apps on your phone. These Prime apps include remote charge management, a charging station map, remote climate-control, and more. Through the app you can program your car to charge during off-peak hours to save money on fuel, or even set the climate control or battery warmer to get going before you head off to work so as to not waste energy on your commute. These features, while not as thrilling as you might find on a performance car, help constitute the trappings of a different kind of driving enthusiast. In our book, any way you can be more involved and engaged with your car in your everyday life is a good thing.

Good bones point the way forward

Driving engagement, on the other hand, was something the outgoing Prius struggled with. And although the Prius Prime is still not the Toyota 86 or something similar, it's come a long way thanks largely to its Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. Adding to the significantly stiffer architecture, engineers improved battery positioning, made big upgrades to the suspension, and designed a lower driving position.

On a freshly paved, magnificent set of mountain twisties near Ojai, California, the Prius Prime held its own rather than holding on for dear life. Toyota has not completely excommunicated head-toss and body roll, but the Prime stays relatively planted through route 33's cascade of challenging corners. Ride quality is impressive, and the stiff structure does a great job absorbing impacts over rough patches of road and highway expansion joints. The steering feels a touch artificial, but the old looseness and vagueness are gone, replaced by a somewhat weighted feel. Since the last Prius, our favorite upgrade has to be the new independent MacPherson front suspension and double-wishbone rear, offering much better initial turn-in and mid-corner handling. Our biggest beef is with the brakes, which are neither progressive nor powerful.

Then Prius Prime reveals the TNGA platform is indeed the real deal, and when it proliferates throughout Toyota's lineup, the days of dreadful-driving Corollas and Camrys may get a long-overdue salvation.

Aggressive pricing strategy

Toyota said it would be aggressive with its pricing breakdown for the Prius Prime, but it's really going for the Volt's throat here. The starting price for the Prime Plus is $27,965 including destination fees, which is about $6,000 cheaper than the Volt EV.

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime Premium costs $29,665, while the loaded Advanced model rings in at $33,965. For now there are no options apart from the three trim levels, but Toyota execs hinted that down the road you might be able to add key features like blind-spot monitoring on the fly.

When the Prius Prime arrives at dealerships nationwide around late October, it'll represent a legitimate challenge to the Volt. Though it's not high on people's minds right now, a time will inevitably come when an affordable plug-in hybrid with serious efficiency and everyday utility is just what people will need. For now, the Prime is playing the long game.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime Specifications

On Sale: Late October
Price: $27,965-$33,965
Engine: 1.8L DOHC 16-valve Atkinson cycle I-4/95 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 105 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm; permanent magnet AC synchronous motor/91 hp; total system output 121 hp
Transmission: Continuously variable
Layout: 4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
EPA Mileage: 55/53 mpg (city/hwy); 133 mpg-e
L x W x H: 182.9 x 69.3 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Weight: 3,365-3,375 lb
0-60 MPH: 11 sec (est)
Top Speed: N/A

 

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