2017 Toyota Prius Prime: A plug-in hybrid that makes sense [First Look]

2017 Toyota Prius Prime (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

If you can get beyond the quirky looks of the all-new 2017 Toyota Prius Prime and take it for a drive, you’ll notice a bit of a non sequitur.

The Prime is Toyota’s fuel sipping, environment-loving plug-in hybrid that can go about 25 miles and up to 84 mph in all-EV range.

But – and this is the part that doesn’t follow – the Prime is actually really fun to drive. It can handle curves and corners fairly well on its narrow 15-inch tires, and when push comes to shove, it’s actually on the peppy side of the equation. Especially if you put it into power mode.

The Prime’s combined gas/EV fuel economy is a very sound 124 MPGe, and total driving range is 614 miles.

However, as Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division, pointed out during the press preview, with EV power alone, Prime has enough range that 50 percent of the population wouldn’t have to touch a gas pump for its daily commute.

Taking the electric-only range out of the equation, hybrid fuel economy is 55 MPG in the city and 53 MPG on the highway – better numbers than you’ll see for any other plug-in hybrid currently on the road. For comparison’s sake, the 2017 Chevrolet Volt has an EPA estimated 106 MPGe and gasoline hybrid combined city/highway fuel economy of 42 mpg. The Ford Fusion Energi gets 97 MPGe and 42 MPG, respectively.

While the Prime isn’t going to beat the new Toyota 86 sports coupe in an autocross, it will be able to make some aggressive passing maneuvers, manage twisty bits of road competently and merge with traffic without fear of getting hit.

The Prime comes equipped with the same 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine that comes in the Prius liftback. It also has an electric motor to help generate power and an 8.8 kWh lithium ion battery pack to store the electric charge. Combined power output is 121 horsepower.

In addition to Power, Eco and Normal modes – which control throttle response – the Prime also has separate modes that control the engine operation: EV mode, EV Auto Mode and Hybrid Mode.

EV is self-explanatory, but EV Auto will rely more on the electric drive mode in urban situations, but then opt for the gasoline engine in situations like steep hills or passing. Hybrid Mode primarily relies on the gasoline engine with support from the electric motor.

My drive partner and I pushed all the buttons and played around with all the modes, and during our short test, we found the EV or EV Auto is best for stop-and-go surface streets and highway cruising, whereas the Hybrid Mode is going to be your best bet for aggressive driving. So, frankly, I’d probably keep it in EV Auto pretty much all the time.

We also discovered when we were in all-EV mode after a fresh charge, acceleration kind of stinks. So, that whole bit above about the Prime being peppy really only applies to when the gasoline engine is in use and you’ve got power mode switched on. The handling curves part, however, applies always.

While the exterior styling is on the quirky side, the interior is all cool modern awesomeness. The best thing about it is the Tesla-like 11.6-inch infotainment screen. The vertical display is larger than an iPad and beautifully shows off map graphics and vehicle information. By far this was my favorite feature on the interior of the Prime.

I do have one point of annoyance. Toyota talked up the smartphone-like pinch-and-zoom capability of the map during the press briefing, so, of course that was the first thing we tried while we were on the road. It didn’t work. At all. Come to find out, the pinch-and-zoom only works when you’re in park. ‘Cause, of course, that’s when I’m going to need it. Not.

I get that Toyota is concerned about safety, and you can’t pair your phone or set your navigation via the touch screen while you’re driving. But pinch-and-zoom? That’s silly. When you’re driving is exactly when you want this functionality.

Frankly, if I can’t get the functionality on the overlarge 11.6-inch monitor, I’m picking up my phone instead, and that display becomes a pricey piece of art rather than a useful object.

Oh, and did you catch the part about where I’m picking up my phone? That negates all that “safety” that’s being built in.

But back to the good stuff.

Another great feature on the Prime is the up-level JBL audio system in the Advanced trim. I am by no means an audiophile, but when I sat through the sound demonstration I was impressed.

We listened to “Come Away with Me” by Norah Jones, and I could hear each instrument distinctly, and when she took a breath between verses, it was like she was standing right next to me. We then heard an excerpt from “Hotel California” live, and I could literally hear the cacophony of applause as it exploded in the left front corner and then traveled clockwise around the vehicle.

All that in a Prius.

Without the music on, the interior of the cabin was quiet. Some engine and tire noise do creep into the cabin when driving aggressively, but ambient noise is minimal. And when you’re driving in EV mode at flat highway speeds, the silence is calming.

Other than the 11.6-inch screen, the interior of the Prime is quite similar to the liftback model that was all-new for the 2016 model year – right down to the toilet-bowl white accents on the steering wheel, center stack and center console. And, no, I’m still not a fan.

The rest of the interior is quite lovely. The test vehicle had leather-like SofTex seating trim, which was supportive, comfortable and attractive. The touch points are solid, and everything looks and feels more on the premium side of the equation.

For 2017, Prime has a three-grade strategy. Each option adds more technology and amenities, which negates the need for package options.

  • Plus: This trim comes really well equipped with standard features such as navigation, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, pre-collision alert, automatic emergency braking, rear backup camera, fabric-trimmed seats, heated front seats, push-button start, passive entry and Bluetooth phone pairing. The Plus price is $27,965 with destination.
  • Premium: This trim upgrades to the 11.6-inch vertical display and adds SofTex seating surfaces, power adjustable driver’s seat and Qi wireless smartphone charging. Premium pricing is $29,665 with destination.
  • Advanced: At this level, you’re looking at all the whistles and bells, including a heated steering wheel, a head-up color display, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, intelligent park assist and JBL Audio. Advanced pricing is $33,965 with destination.

The pricing structure on these trims becomes even more attractive when you consider the fact the new Prime will be eligible for local and federal tax credits that could add up to $6,500.

Toyota was also quick to point out the base Prime version will cost about $6K less than the Chevrolet Volt ($34,095). And, while the Volt has a longer EV range – 53 miles vs. the Prime’s 25 – the Prime has a lower price tag, can charge in 5.5 hours on a regular plug and has better MPGe and MPG ratings.

If you have a place to plug in at home, the Prius Prime makes a lot of sense. If you have a place to charge at work, it makes even more sense. I really liked the 2017 Chevrolet Volt, but other than the interior, I think I like the Prime more.

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime hits dealers in November.

Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Toyota covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.


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