I’ll admit that when I first heard of the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Part of me thought that it may be that performance variant of the Prius I’ve been imagining. Another part thought it was just a Prius that can only be divided by one and itself. Both parts were wrong: the Prius Prime is the plug-in Prius designed to sort of quench Tesla-lust for half the price.
(Full disclosure: Toyota wanted me to drive a Prius Prime so very much that they flew me to Ojai and fed me well, but one day I had no hot water. I bathed in champagne instead, like in a rap video. It was quite lovely.)
Of course, the Prius Prime is not a Tesla. It’s not a pure electric car; it’s a hybrid. This one is a plug-in hybrid, and Toyota has given it an 8.8 kWh battery pack (twice the size of the regular Prius) so the Prime can go a whole 25 miles on a full electric charge.
That’s a far cry from the 200+ miles of a Tesla, but it’s enough for at least half of the population to get to work and back, and, remember, there’s an Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter gasoline engine in there, too, giving the Prime a total range of an impressive 640 miles.
Now, there’s no way in hell Toyota is going to admit that anything about the Prius Prime is designed to play on the Tesla-desires of people in no position to buy a Tesla, but I’m pretty sure that was a big (if unspoken) part of this car’s design brief.
I say this because there’s one thing that everyone is going to remember about the Prius Prime when they see one: it can be had (and very likely, will be) with a massive 11.6-inch portrait-oriented center-stack LCD screen. It’s a big, vertical screen just like in a Tesla, and if anyone tells you that, no, they never realized that it will remind everybody of a Tesla, they’re lying to you.
Of course that screen supposed to remind people of a Tesla. Teslas are by far the most famous electric cars right now, and are well-known and desired even to people normally not that interested in cars. People who are, or were a few years ago, likely to buy Priuses.
There’s a lot of people who are loyal Prius buyers who have been smitten by the cachet of the Tesla, but nothing short of Craigslisting a couple of kidneys is going to get them in one.
Toyota, collectively, is no dummy, and it’s a wise move to have the top end of the Prius line be something that can perhaps suggest Tesla just enough to get frustrated Muskovites interested.
The Prius Prime is far uglier than a Tesla Model S. It’s also much cheaper, has a range that’s beyond just useful and well into remarkable, and, since you can just run it on gas when needed, is vastly more practical for long trips. This will never be realistically cross-shopped with a Tesla, but it will be considered by people who have very unrealistically cross-shopped a Tesla.
How’s it different from the regular Prius?
Toyota insists on calling their latest regular Prius the “Prius Liftback,” even though this one has a back that lifts as much as the any Prius ever did. But, whatever, they can call it whatever the hell they want.
It’s the same platform as the Liftback, but because the battery is so much bigger, the car is four inches longer and 300 pounds heavier—265 pounds of which is the battery pack. All the extra length is in the rear overhang.
The Prime relocates its battery to behind the back seat, as opposed to under it, like in the Liftback. The rear bumper assembly is longer to accommodate the extra length, as is the rear hatch. The rear hatch is actually made of carbon fiber, a production Toyota first.
Interestingly, it’s carbon fiber with a fake carbon fiber pattern embossed into it to make it look even more carbon-fibery. I saw a preproduction one without the embossing, and a production one with it, and yep, it does look more like what we all imagine carbon fiber to look like.
Still, it’s weird, like the way ancient Egyptians would paint wood grain on things made of wood.
It’s a little less ugly!
The front end is also quite different, swapping the Liftback Prius’s face that looks like a ferret is smelling something awful yet oddly arousing, for the Prime’s robot tarantula cybaroque madhouse of lights, concavities, vents, textures, and creases.
It’s actually much better than the squinty, disgusted-looking Prius Liftback, but it’s still not great. The Prime is designed to have a futuristic, technology-focused look, and Toyota considers it in the same category as their Mirai hydrogen car. If the goal is to convey some sort of vague, advanced technology feeling over being more traditionally attractive, then, sure, it does its job well.
It’s the car equivalent of, say, one of those expensive gaming PCs. It’s not exactly attractive, but you get the message: it’s crammed full of technology.
The rear I actually think is quite improved over the Prius Liftback: there’s a new spoiler design (they call it a “dual wave” spoiler) and the taillights are completely different.
Gone are the contorted vertical units that look sort of like the fat bodies in a frog’s abdomen, replaced by a full-width brake-and-tail border thing that surrounds the lower rear glass like a scuba mask, and a set of lights in the corners that have the indicators and reverse. It looks better, but it’s a little confusing, visually.
Also notable at the rear: the spoiler still bisects your rear vision exactly where you don’t want it. Does this not bother the shit out of people?
One thing worth noting relating to the design: I talked to one of the engineers on the project about how incredibly vulnerable the corner-mounted LED lighting units were in small accidents. Really, they form the very corner of the car, and, as we’ve seen, corners are vulnerable, especially on Toyotas.
The engineer did have an answer, and that was that at least on the front, the bumper skin is designed to be in three segments. That means if you get hit on one corner, you don’t need to replace an absurdly expensive entire bumper skin—just a moderately expensive corner. That’s something, at least.
The overall look carries the message that most Prius Prime owners want to convey: the owner is a person who is Doing Something about the environment, and has all manner of technology to achieve that. And, remember, this thing has a Cd of 0.25, which means it is incredibly, remarkably aerodynamic.
I do like the Prime-exclusive vivid blue color, too. It works well with the whole car’s tone and character. I don’t know why you’d want one of these in the multiple grayscale colors they have, but I know most people will.
On the inside
Inside the Prius Prime, Toyota has wisely installed an interior. It’s essentially the same as the Liftback Prius, save for that massive, vertical screen I talked so much about before.
Did I mention how great that screen would be to play MAME on? The little shifter is electronic, so I bet you could pry out the plastic gate and use it like a joystick. This thing is just begging to be turned into a Galaga machine.
The trunk room is compromised on the prime, dropping down to 19.8 cubic feet of room. It’s still usable, but the floor is noticeably higher. There’s no spare tire, just a tire inflation kit, and the jack is now stored under the back seat, in a handy smuggler’s compartment.
I actually like the interiors of the whole new Prius family, overall. The non-black-on-black-0n-black options are the best, and even if the center tray thing sort of looks like a bedpan, I think the overall effect is airy and good. It’s a comfortable place to be stuck in traffic in.
The Prius Prime, like the rest of the Prius line, beeps the entire time you’re in reverse because the goofy design of the Prius shifter gives no indication what gear you’re in on the shifter itself. The dash, sure. The huge center screen showing the backup camera is also a clue. But Toyota doesn’t think his is enough, hence the beeping.
If – no – when I run Toyota one day, I’ll stick a tiny OLED display in the shift knob that shows what gear you’re in, and end the internal, infernal beeping forever.
What’s it like to drive?
Let’s talk tech first: the Prius Prime has the same number of electric motors (two) as the Liftback Prius, but thanks to the addition of a little clutch unit, both can now drive the wheels. On other Prii, just Motor-Generator 2 (MG2) drives the wheels; Motor-Generator 1 (MG1) is the starter motor and acts as a generator to turn kinetic energy into electricity.
On the Prime, that little clutch can engage MG1 to drive the wheels as well; this allows the Prime to stay in pure electric mode all the way up to 84 mph, meaning you can drive the Prime like an electric car on city roads or highways.
This doesn’t mean the Prime actually feels faster, though. The overall hybrid system output is 121 HP, and the extra power from MG1 seems to just go to making the heavier Prime drive just like the regular Prius, which means it gets from Whole Foods parking lot to one mile every minute in about 12 seconds.
But then there’s the feel of the car while you drive. I took the Prime on some lovely, winding mountain roads, past so many NO TRESSPASSING signs, and let me tell you, it was a mind-scrambler.
I put my sunglasses on and gripped the rational, adequate wheel. I stomped on the go-pedal, and, since I was in EV mode, was rewarded with a hum so mild, so unobtrusive, it made me gasp in basic acknowledgement.
As I entered the first turn at a dizzying 28 mph, I felt those hard, efficiency tires not really grip, and, as I put on a second pair of sunglasses, felt the incredible lack of almost anything through the wheel.
This was a car that screams “I’m currently in motion!” as you drive. I watched my speed climb from 34 to 36 to 44 to a dizzying 47 MPH as I came into a long, gradual bend; I put a third pair of sunglasses on and, seeing almost nothing, let my body really feel the slight sensation of motion and hear the quiet drone of the A/C.
For most of the people who want this car, it drives just fine. It doesn’t care about being exciting and visceral to drive, because it does something else well.
What is that something else?
You know what that something else is: using less gas. The Prius Prime has just now gotten its official EPA MPGe results, and it’s better than almost anyone’s: 133 MPGe. For comparison, a Volt gets 106 MPGe, and a BMW i3 gets 124 MPGe.
The MPGe number factors in both the electric and gasoline drivetrains, and if we break those out, the Prime still looks good: 55 city/ 53 highway/ 54 combined MPG, with up to 25 miles of EV-only range.
Those are very good numbers. This is the main technical job of the Prius Prime, and it does that job very well. Many owners can plug in their Primes every night (it takes 5 and a half hours to get fully charged on 110V, 2:10 on 240V) and hardly use the gas engine at all. Which means they’ll probably save a lot of gas money and get that gross mayonnaise-like deposit inside their oil caps.
Is it worth it?
Hybrids aren’t exactly selling all that great right now, since gas is so cheap. That’s why I think the Prime is making a bigger show out of its tech than its green cred.
The Prime comes in three grades: Plus ($27,100), Premium ($28,800), and Advanced ($33,100). Since the big-ass vertical screen starts on the Premium, I’d say you may as well go for that one. It’s not a bad price, really, when you consider all that you’re getting for the money.
The Prius Prime is about $6,000 less than a Chevy Volt, and about half of what a Tesla Model S costs. If you’re really taken by the pure Silicon Valley-ness of a Tesla but just can’t quite swing the money, or perhaps you still want to take a road trip that doesn’t require planning everything around where the Superchargers are, then the Prime does make a sort of sense.
It’s easily the best Prius available right now, and I’m sure it’ll be a relief to many people who want a Prius but just can’t even with that new Prius front end.
The Prime is the ultimate current expression of Prius. There’s a good number of people out there who find that concept very compelling, and this car will be fantastic for them.
I hope they get them in blue. Even more so, I hope some hackers manage to adapt MAME to the center-stack screen, because, come on, a correct-aspect-ratio Ms. Pac-Man played with the shifter is going to be a beautiful thing.