Plug-in hybrids have become increasingly common in recent years, with offerings as diverse as the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan and the Ferrari SF90 Stradale supercar. Unsurprisingly, perhaps the most well-known brand for regular hybrids, Toyota, pioneered the field, first with the plug-in Prius in 2012, followed by the Prius Prime.
The Prius Prime launched as a 2017 model, and in the five years since, it hasn’t changed much. The Prime is marketed as a separate model from the regular Prius and, in addition to its modified powertrain, it has a slightly different, but equally bizarre exterior styling. Back when Toyota was designing the Prime, it obviously believed that a key element of the Prius’ popularity was its standout appearance. So this version ventured even further, adding new creases to the sharp profile of the Prius, introducing a double-bubble roofline and framing the lower air intake with huge vertical fog lamps.
The oddities continue inside. The digital instrumentation is offset to the center of the dash outside the driver’s normal line of sight, and the shallow screen doesn’t offer much customization. A head-up display that sits directly in front of the driver makes up for the odd placement of the instrument cluster, but it’s exclusive to the Limited trim. The shifter resembles that of the regular Prius, a chunky little lever that moves in an unusual double-J pattern. Physical knobs and buttons are mostly banished. Instead, nearly all of the controls are unintuitive capacitive touch points, even for adjusting audio volume and temperature.
The base LE has a 7.0-inch center touchscreen, while the XLE and Limited models (like our test car) have an 11.6-inch vertical screen. Either way, navigation is included, as is smartphone mirroring and Amazon Alexa integration. Despite the vast amount of real estate available on the big screen, most of its touchpoints are tiny, making it difficult to hit your target on the first try, and certainly not without taking your eyes off the road. Performing some simple tasks, such as adjusting the fan speed, requires multiple taps on the screen.
All Prime models have interiors free of animal products, with synthetic leather in the Limited model. The seating position is low and the dead pedal for the driver’s left leg is rather close. The view of the long dash is framed by the A-pillars, and the bar between the two pieces of glass on the tailgate obstructs the view to the rear. The rear seat now has seat belts for three, but it’s more realistic and roomy enough for two passengers, and they should watch out for the sloping roofline when entering. Behind the rear seats is a modest 20 cubic feet of luggage space, and the cargo floor is high. The regular Prius has a roomier cargo hold (27 cubic feet), as does the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV (23 cubic feet).
Like the regular Prius, the Prius Prime is all about fuel economy. It boasts EPA estimates of 53 mpg city, 55 mpg highway and 54 mpg combined. That tops any plug-in hybrid, though the regular Prius does about as well, with combined EPA estimates of 52 or 56 mpg, depending on trim level. (Unlike the Prime, the standard Prius also offers an all-wheel-drive variant good for 49 mpg.) We saw 45 MPGe in our 200-mile highway fuel economy test (starting with a full battery) and a average of 48 MPGe overall. When you turn off the car, the dashboard display gives you an eco-driving score on a scale of 1-100, usually accompanied by an attaboy (“Good Steady Driving”) message and a how-to you can do better (“Ease Accelerator Use”), delivered with some piano notes in the background.
The Prime’s plug-in hybrid powertrain, consisting of a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine and two motor-generators, develops just 121 horsepower, and the car’s acceleration is, as one would expect. wait there, without haste. On our test track, the Prime dragged itself to 60 mph in 10.3 seconds, making it slower than any car we tested last year or in 2020. It’s also slower slower than the Ioniq PHEV. The quarter mile passed in an equally languid 17.7 seconds at 78 mph. This uses motor and electric motors. In EV mode, those times were even longer.
On the road, the planetary gear behaves like a continuously variable automatic transmission, soaring engine revs, with a buzz every time you ask for acceleration. The Eco, Normal and Power drive modes primarily determine how far you have to press the accelerator before the powertrain responds.
If the battery is sufficiently charged, the car begins to drive in EV, which is ultimately more pleasant since the throttle response is linear and the motor remains quiet. Unfortunately, the Prius Prime cannot be driven for long as an electric vehicle. With an estimated energy of 6.2 kWh for the lithium-ion battery, the Prime offers a modest 25 EV miles of range, according to the EPA; we covered 21 miles on our highway test. Most newer PHEVs do better, including the Ioniq (29 miles), Hyundai Tucson (33 miles) and Ford Escape (37 miles).
To get an idea of how far PHEV powertrains have come since the launch of the Prius Prime, just look around the Toyota showroom. The RAV4 Prime, introduced last year, has a 2.5-liter engine, three electric motors, all-wheel drive and a much larger battery. The RAV4 Prime’s 302 horsepower destroys the Prius Prime under acceleration, reaching 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. Its official fuel economy of 38 mpg combined can’t match the Prius, but the RAV4 is much more likely to use no gas at all in city driving, as it can go about 42 miles on battery power alone.
The small battery of the Prius Prime has an advantage: its ease of charging at home. The Prime can be plugged into a conventional 120-volt wall outlet, which recharges the battery in about five and a half hours. A 240 volt outlet can also be used and reduces this time to two hours.
Beyond its puny powertrain, the Prime’s selfless driving demeanor extends to its light and numb steering. Predictably, the low-rolling-resistance tires don’t shine on the skid, where we measured 0.80g of lateral grip and recorded a stopping distance of 184 feet at 70 mph. The brake pedal modulation, however, is not bad for a hybrid. The Prius Prime also skilfully hides small bumps in the road, although large potholes disrupt the body structure.
The Prius Prime starts at $29,245 for the LE, climbs to $31,025 for the XLE and $35,025 for the Limited. Those numbers are a few thousand dollars more than what you’d pay for the regular Prius. For now, the Prime is eligible for a federal tax credit of $4,502, but that should begin to be phased out later this year. (Phasing out varies with each automaker, depending on the total number of PHEVs and EVs it has sold.)
Automakers are rapidly adding PHEVs as they strive to electrify their lineups. As they do, the focus of plug-in hybrids shifts from fuel economy to performance, both in terms of acceleration and electric-only range. The Prius Prime lags behind in both of these parameters. And while it outperforms other PHEVs in fuel economy, it’s not materially better than the regular Prius. Which doesn’t leave much reason to upgrade to the Prime.
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