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Toyota Prius Prime Plug-In Aims to Defend Green-Car Throne Against Volt and Ioniq

Things are heating up in the MPG arena.

Competition forces you to step up your game. After years of dominance, the Toyota Prius is starting to feel the low-emission breath on its neck from upstarts like the Hyundai Ioniq as well as returning contenders like the Chevrolet Volt. The Prius Prime could very well be Toyota's cleanup hitter, poised to lead the longtime green champion into another season atop the green heap, despite the growing tide of plug-in talent.

Unlike the last plug-in Prius, the 2017 Prius Prime plug-in is more than a half-way measure to dress up the standard Prius with a dollop of EV functionality. Buyers in all 50 states can now take home a plug-in Prius, and the all-electric range has been doubled thanks to a larger lithium-ion battery pack.

The 2017 Prius Prime plug-in hybrid uses an 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery that allows it to travel 22 miles on electric energy alone. (The outgoing model used a 4.4-kWh battery good for 11 miles.) Toyota says this is plenty for the daily commute distance of most drivers, and highway runs are no problem with an all-electric top speed of 84 mph. Off the freeway, the Prius Prime will allow you to run in EV mode in more situations than the old one, increasing range. And when it comes time to recharge, the included cord can plug into your home outlet and be fully replenished in 5.5 hours. Using a 240-volt charger, it will take less than half the time.

With a full charge and a 11.3-gallon tank of gas, Toyota says the Prius Prime can go more than 600 miles without stopping. That's range we've only seen from diesel-powered cars with large fuel tanks, in ideal conditions. It averages an estimated 120 MPGe, which Toyota says will be the highest of any plug-in hybrid at the time of its launch.

For its part, the Chevrolet Volt is the clear winner for all-electric driving given its 53-mile EV range. On the other hand, it has a total range of about 420 miles using its range-extending gasoline engine. A more appropriate apples-to-apples comparison is the new Hyundai Ioniq, also appearing in New York this year. It can go about 31 miles on electric energy from its 8.9-kWh battery pack, motivated by a 104-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and a 43-hp electric motor.

Double the battery capacity obviously is a big improvement for the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime from this generation to the last, but an all-new hybrid system for this generation helps maximize usage of electric energy depending on the situation.  For the first time Toyota is using a dual-motor generator drive system, meaning both the electric motor and the generator can power the wheels, versus just the electric motor in the old car. The Prime can run on the standard Prius' 95-hp 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder, the electric motor, or both, and delivers power using the same planetary-type continuously variable transmission as in the regular Prius.

The regular Prius also donates much of its slippery aero design, helping the Prime achieve a coefficient of drag that Toyota estimates will be the lowest of all production sedans. The relationship to the standard model is clear, but the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime has unique quad-LED headlights as well as new full-width LED signature rear lighting. An aluminum hood helps slash weight, but perhaps the most interesting diet trick is a carbon fiber liftgate that Toyota says is "effortless" to open and close.

Inside, the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime gets a bit more class and attention than the standard Prius. It includes standard heated front seats, automatic climate control, an exclusive 11.6-inch tablet-like toushcreen display (a la Tesla), and a 4.2-inch TFT instrument cluster with multi-information efficiency displays.  Leather-trimmed seats are available,  as is wireless charging for your phone. A premium Entune JBL audio system bundles navigation with a subscription-free App Suite that includes iHeart Radio, Pandora, OpenTable, Yelp, and more. The Prime can also be ordered with parking assist for parallel and perpendicular spots, although a backup camera is standard.

If the Prius Prime can combine the drivability and utility of the standard Prius with the all-electric performance and range to boot, it stands a very solid chance of rising above the rest. Whether or not it can stand up to the stiffest competition it has ever faced, remains to be seen.

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime hits showrooms in late fall.