A charitable description of the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime’s performance would call it a “momentum car.” Precious speed must be preserved, because accelerating takes forever. On the other hand, I could not get this car to dip below 50 MPG no matter how hard I flogged it, which is downright miraculous.
(Full disclosure: Toyota wanted me to drive the new Prius Prime so much that the company had one dropped one off at my house the week I needed to make a grocery run. It’ll hold a lot of fancy delicious cheeses.)
The Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is no driver’s car, and I don’t think the space-agey exterior design translates well into user-friendly ergonomics inside. Yet it does its seemingly singular purpose well: it gets incredible fuel economy.
What Is It?
You know the Prius from every slow-moving left lane in America. It’s Toyota’s flagship compact hybrid car. If you really need me to explain what it is, you may also want to ask the doctors who woke you up from your lengthy coma to catch you up on the past two decades.
The Prius Prime is the latest plug-in hybrid version of the Prius. It’s the version that allows you to take advantage of the ever-increasing number of charging stations to save on gas, but still have a livable car if you can’t get to a plug or find one at home.
It has an 8.8 kWh battery pack that enables the car to get 25 miles of purely electric range if you so desire, but kicks on the 1.8-liter inline-four engine if you need more power or run out of wattage in the battery. Toyota says the entire package is good for 640 miles of travel range.
The Prime’s bigger battery pack fits in behind the rear seats, which necessitated a thicker rear bumper cover and the addition of four inches in length. The cargo area is a little higher than you’d expect as a result, but it’s not too bad.
At the end of the day, it’s still a Prius, albeit one that’s four inches longer and 300 pounds heavier than its non-plug-in counterpart. You can and will probably cover it in stickers for various causes and destinations.
Why Does It Matter?
Prius Primes were over a quarter of all plug-in hybrid sales in the United States in January, per Hybrid Cars. As more people warm up to the idea of a plug-in hybrid, these will be just as prolific as standard non plug-in Priuses.
On top of that, the new styling for the Prius line is one of the few interesting designs out there. Toyota took actual risks with the design of one of its most iconic cars, and I appreciate that. The new Priuses look like alien spacepods from another dimension on the outside, and that is delightful.
It Looks Faster Than It Is
The Prius remains one of my greatest automotive frustrations. I want to like the Prius. Toyota came within one lap of winning Le Mans with a hybrid after all, foiled by a lone faulty connector. They’re not just my good, long-suffering team to root for—they’re proof that someone at Toyota can build a good, fast hybrid car, at least on the racing side.
Yet the Prius isn’t remotely fun to drive at all. It takes an epoch to accelerate, even in its most energy-hogging setting. This grates on you. Any car that gets in the way of the great distance this car needs to get up to speed automatically becomes my greatest nemesis.
Once you’re up to speed, it’s not much better. Hard eco-tires make sure you corner slower than you’d like to whether you’re deathly afraid of corners or not. It has a tendency towards safe, predictable understeer when you approach the low limits of those tires, although perhaps not as much as you’d expect. A far worse sin is the car’s suspension, which is so inexplicably springy that the car bounces along on the freeway.
It’s a small car with an ultralight hatchback made of carbon fiber. Why isn’t it more fun to toss around? I’m not going to be happy until you consult your Le Mans team to make this little sucker fly in a performance trim, Toyota.
With Help, It Hoons
Not everything about our week with the Prius was angry driving and gnashing of teeth. We cracked the secret to having fun with it.
Get two cafeteria trays and stick them under the rear wheels. We purchased ours, so you should, too. Any good restaurant supply store should have the same exact plastic trays you’d find at joints like Whataburger. Crank the wheel all the way over in your desired direction and hit the gas. Rip shockingly tidy, delightful donuts. You’re welcome.
Perhaps it was the harder tires, or the sheer momentum of an already donutting Prius, but it kept doing donuts after using up the trays. Either way, is there anything more amusing that making a Prius spin around like a top? Probably not.
It’s Still Annoying On The Inside
The exterior of the Prius clearly came from an delightful alternate timeline where Googie architecture caught on and we’re sending our pets to doggy day care on Mars. The interior, on the other hand, felt like the same old frustrating Prius, except with a big ol’ Not-A-Tesla touchscreen in the middle.
Inside, you’re greeted by the same weird central instrument cluster placement seen in previous Priuses from 2003 onwards, with the speedometer just off the middle. Is this so your car-averse passengers can scream at you if you’re going too fast?
It also has the same goofy shift knob that goes back to the center after you hope you’ve selected something. It tripped me up several times over the week because I’m used to being able to look over at my automatic gear knob and know that I’m in drive, neutral or reverse simply by looking at it locked into place. Imagine that luxury!
It will beep at you when you put it in reverse. And beep. And beep. It feels like driving a commercial truck, except you’re not getting paid. Visibility out the rear is interrupted by the large spoiler that bisects the rear hatch, which I’m used to because my car has the same issue, but some will no doubt find that annoying. Fortunately, it also has a backup camera.
The gigantic 11.6-inch screen that controls most of the interior functions looks cute at first, with a little Prius graphic on the top to aww at. Some readouts are pretty clever, like the ones that tell you exactly what is using up all of your battery at any given moment in time.
However, the choices Toyota made as to what was on the screen versus what was on the side were perplexing at times. You could adjust the HVAC temperature to the side, but not the fan speed. The fan speed was hidden away in a menu on the touchscreen, where it’s inconvenient to just reach over and adjust.
The stereo, too, had the same clunky Toyota touchscreen-based interface that annoyed me from the C-HR and 86, only ported over to this big silly screen with satellite radio added. It sounds fine, but there’s still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto functionality. Fortunately, physical buttons on the steering wheel help with daily use somewhat, but woe is you if you’re trying to navigate to your favorite low-power college radio frequency with those dumb little digital arrows.
The whole package reeks of style over substance, right down to the hard plastic white chunk on the steering wheel that looks like it would get absolutely destroyed by every large, Dolly Parton-grade piece of rhinestone costume jewelry I own.
But It Sure Is Good On Gas
While the Prius Prime isn’t fun or particularly user-friendly on the inside, it was made to sip fuel at a miserly rate, which it does like a champ. I spent a week driving this thing like an extremely irritated bat out of hell and it never dipped below an average of 50 MPG.
That’s up there with the ultralight stripper hatchbacks of the early nineties, only it got that gas mileage consistently, and with all the heavy, modern creature comforts intact. That’s no small feat.
As with most other plug-in vehicles, you can schedule it to charge when electricity is the cheapest. I don’t have a plug at home, so I couldn’t test this. Leaving it on the free charger at Whole Foods for 53 minutes gave it 2.88 kWh worth of power back, which took it from barely any battery power to about halfway full.
Toyota claims that it would have taken two hours and 10 minutes to fill up on a 240V car charger, which sounds about right based on the rate I noticed. If you’re using a 110V charger at home, they claim it only takes five and a half hours.
If this is all you care about, sure, I guess that’s why these things sell. But you’re not going to have much fun in it, and the weirdly bouncy qualities of the ride mean it won’t even be that comfortable.
The Prius Prime Advanced that we tested was $36,305, although the base price for the Prius Prime itself is $27,100. Of course, since it’s a plug-in hybrid, there are often federal and state tax credits and other incentives that help alleviate that price.
The base price for the very similar Chevrolet Volt is significantly higher, as is the full-electric hype car du jour, the Tesla Model 3. Do you want a Tesla-style big screen in a car for some reason without paying more and waiting for a Tesla to show up? Here you go.
Bonus: the Toyota has better build quality, and won’t leave you stranded if you venture out into the parts of the world where there aren’t any electrical plugs.
Of course, many conventionally powered subcompact cars like the Toyota Yaris iA or the Mitsubishi Mirage can get miles per gallon in the mid 30s to low 40s if you hypermile them, cost half as much as the Prius Prime’s base MSRP, and be a lot more fun to drive should you encounter a turn on the road. If you care about driving at all, do that instead.
But regular subcompacts take effort to wring nearly 40 MPG out of, while the Prius hovers over 50 MPG no matter how much of a hoon you are. It’s not a good highway car or driver’s car, but if most of what you do with the car is sit and inch forward in butt-awful traffic, it ticks the box.
I cannot own a Prius Prime. I drive too angry in it. If you derive joy solely from cheap gas bills, maybe the Prius Prime is your car. Its ability to sip the tiniest amount of gas possible in spite of my driving style is a technological marvel. But heed my warning: if you love to drive, however, the general numbness, lack of acceleration and bouncy ride may slowly turn you into the kind of aggressive, frustrated driver you’ve always been told to avoid.