Prius Prime plug-in gets a bigger battery, but the Volt still goes twice as far on electricity
Toyota is the world leader in hybrids, pioneering their development as mass-market transportation alternatives 25 years ago and then selling way more of them than any other carmaker on the planet. Toyota now offers a total of 13 hybrid models, and those make up 70 percent of the hybrid market.
But as for plug-in hybrids, well, that’s a different story.
Toyota has always danced around electricity like it was afraid it’d get zapped. When other carmakers were making dedicated EVs to meet California’s draconian ZEV Mandate, Toyota converted the bare minimum number of RAV4s to electric drive, first with less efficient nickel-metal hydride batteries, then by just turning the whole thing over to Tesla for the second-gen RAV4 EV. After that, Toyota abandoned pure EVs altogether in the headlong pursuit of hydrogen fuel cells as the ZEV holy grail. Similarly, Toyota lagged behind other carmakers in plug-in hybrids. The previous Prius plug-in offered only about 12 miles of range on electricity alone, while the first-generation Chevy Volt was getting almost three times that much.
With a new Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid arriving in dealerships Nov. 3, has that changed? The 2017 Prius Prime gets a bigger battery that doubles its range on pure electricity to 25 miles, but it still lags behind most competitors. While Prius Prime’s 25 miles electric now beats the Ford C-Max and Fusion Energi’s 19-mile EV range, theSonata plug-in can go 27 miles and the Chevy Volt now covers a whopping 53 miles on a charge. And Honda’s coming 2018-model-year PHEV is said to go 40 miles on electricity alone.
With the top-level Prius Prime Advanced, you’ll get: HD multimedia display with pinch-zoom functionality, Qi-compatible wireless phone charging, standard NAV (NAV is standard across lineup), remote-charge management, remote climate, charging station map, vehicle finder, ECO dashboard and Intelligent Drive Coach, which indicates the optimal time to release throttle and begin braking after it memorizes your commute.
Toyota is confident in its Prius Prime’s performance, though. Engineers targeted the car’s 25-mile range based on research that said the distance would meet the needs of 50 percent of U.S. commuters. Add those who could plug in their cars at work and you’d cover 80 percent of American commuters. Plus, the Prius Prime’s smaller battery pack not only keeps curb weight down, thus increasing potential performance, but it also keeps sticker price well below competitors. With a starting price of $27,965, the Prius Prime is six grand below the price of the Volt and seven grand less than the Sonata plug-in hybrid. It just about matches the base price of the Fords.
Toyota saved some of that money by sharing the Toyota New Global Architecture chassis of the Prius liftback, introduced a year ago, with the Prime. The Prime gets its own front and rear styling, and a carbon-fiber liftgate with unique double-bubble (Zagato? No!) rear glass hatch.
The two-motor electric drivetrain now adds a clutch to Motor-Generator 1 so that both electric motors now help drive the wheels. In previous Prii, MG1 just started the gasoline engine and took care of regen. The gasoline engine component consists of a very efficient (13:1 compression ratio) 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four making 95 peak hp. Combined with the two electric motors, total system output is 121 hp. With a curb weight of 3,365 pounds (about 300 more than the Prius liftback), that means the Prime gets 55 mpg city, 53 highway and 54 combined, with a 124 mpg-e rating and an EPA estimated range of 640 miles with a full gas tank and a fully charged battery. Those mileage figures outpace all the competition, Toyota points out, so a tradeoff in electric-only miles may have been worth it.
What’s it like to drive?
The Prime plug-in still drives like a Prius, which is to say it’s no fun behind the wheel. The Ford C-Max, based on the Focus platform, is actually fun, not just by PHEV standards but by your basic “car” standards. The Prius tries to claim some sort of fun quotient, saying of its double wishbone rear suspension that “you’ll find that kind of suspension on the best sports sedans.” Ha ha. Good try, Toyota. This is a car devoted to efficiency, not agile sportiness. We watched the gauges very closely and found we got exactly Toyota’s promised 25 miles range in EV mode. We also got 11.3 seconds 0-60 after Toyota said we’d get “about 11 seconds.”
Sometimes, stepping on the throttle, the Prius Prime would rev the engine, spin the CVT transmission, make some noise and maybe make some electricity, but not really move the car forward that much. Again, this is efficiency, not performance.
The interior is nice enough, and that massive 11.6-inch hi-res screen will be a big draw among the technological elite, as well as among those who can’t afford a Tesla but really want the Tesla’s 17-inch screen. You can pinch/pull it just like your iPad!
The 1.8-liter gas engine makes 95 hp — combined with the two electric motors, the car produces 121 hybrid net system power.
Do I want it?
Plug-In hybrids are an odd lot. They are for people afraid to make the commitment and leap of faith to a full-on electric car, but for whom a mere hybrid isn’t enough. As Toyota says, half of us could commute to work in this using electricity alone. If you value a little feeling in your commute and you still want a PHEV, try one of the Fords. If you like the roomy character and eerie blue trim of the Hyundai, maybe the Sonata’s for you. If you work at Honda, you can wait for the 40-mile plug-in that’s coming from there in a couple years.
Despite its lack of driving engagement, the Toyota Prius Prime has an awful lot of features available for a relatively inexpensive price. And there are an awful lot of Toyota owners in this country who may want to stick with the brand as they transition to more efficient transportation. For them, the Prius Prime will fit the bill nicely.