Car Reviews First Drives

2017 Toyota Prius Prime First Drive Review

Twice as good

Twice as good

Generally, on long, arduous overseas flights, you settle in, read a little, eat too much, and absolutely never make eye contact with the guy next to you. This time I did.

“Hi, I’m Kim.” “David,” he replied, as we shook hands. We were both heading back to L.A. from Japan.

“On business?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “You?” “Business, too.” “What da you do?” I asked. “Product manager at [a high-tech firm]; work with phone-makers who use our chips. You?”

This can go one of two ways.

Either a click of connection—“I’m a piano-tuner”—“I have a Bosendorfer grand!” Or in my case, usually a tilted head that an apparently grown man is making his living fooling around with cars. “I work at Motor Trend.”

He tilted his head the other way. “I have a ’65 Corvette,” David said. “Just sold my 911, and I have a reservation for a Tesla Model 3. But my everyday driver is a Prius.”

2017 Toyota Prius Prime front three quarter panel

I looked out the window for a minute. A pedigreed, car-enthusiast Prius driver. I’d just driven the new Prius Prime and was looking for somebody to bounce my thoughts off of. Car companies would spend a bundle to assemble a focus group that included a Corvette guy, a Porsche guy, a Tesla guy, and a Prius guy. And here they were in one guy, stuck next to me. For nine and a half hours.

David was already well aware of the Prime. “When we purchased our Prius, the plug-in version cost about $6,000 USD more. With only an 11-mile (18-km) electric range, this wouldn’t even cover my one-way, 14-mile (22-km) commute—it would take a lot of free charging at work to justify that price delta.” I noticed his use of the word “delta.” Good at math. Then he added: “I did get a loaner Prius Plug-in once, for about three days—it was cool to drive on electric. However, after a few days I ended up averaging only about 60-ish mpg (3.9 L/100km). Not enough of a delta for me to buy the plug-in.”

For me, that first Prius Plug-in disappointed more for its peek-a-boo EV experience. Having long surfed the Niagara Falls of EV stupendousness—a Tesla Model S—the Toyota’s engine seemed to start before I’d remembered how to turn the radio on. Plus, I had to drive it like, er, a Prius driver to keep it in EV mode.

The Prime punches back at these foibles with a double-sized, air-cooled lithium-ion battery (8.8 kW-hrs vs 4.4) and way more powerful, and uninterrupted, EV propulsion. Its charging rate remains 3.3 kW, but filling 8.8 kW-hrs still doesn’t take that long—5.5 hours from an ordinary wall plug, a little more than two from a 240-volt outlet. The result is—let me see, times two … twice the previous sub-Prime Plug-in’s range—22 miles (35-km) . Toyota beams that this will accommodate 51 percent of its customers’ daily driving needs.

Fifty-one percent is the minimum number you need to answer “Yes” to the question “Will it satisfy most drivers’ needs?” David’s a 49-percenter: “I guess 22 would at least get me to work with range to spare.” However, during those 387 electrically traversed football fields, it’ll have full EV-cred, as neither matting the accelerator nor pedaling it up to 84 mph (135 km/h) stirs its 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle engine to action. Why? A new one-way clutch between the engine and planetary transmission enables the powertrain’s twin electric motors to join forces.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime front three quarter in motion on track 03

As was evidenced, when no one was looking, during a couple of laps around a sinewy test track. The Prime was brisk at higher speeds, and it positively spit away from rest. The three driving modes are: EV, which depletes the battery first; Hybrid, which saves those precious kW-hrs for later; and EV Auto, which intelligently orchestrates their blending, including—if you’ve mapped a nav route—a three-dimensional chess strategy for elevation changes. You’ll cruise to Grandma’s knowing Eisenhower didn’t plan D-Day this well.

Over the track’s yumps and around its corners, the Prime’s extra battery bulk felt like an invisible NFL lineman in the backseat (which there is, kind of). Even in this era of Oculus Rift alternate realities, weight can’t hide. And because of it, the Prime rides better than the lighter, standard Prius (though it heaves a bit over large road undulations), feels heavier (if respectably linear) to your brake foot, and turns in with concomitantly less crispness. Dynamically, it lands somewhere between the standard Prius and the Volt, which carries 2.1 times the Prime’s battery capacity.

And the Volt raises a thicket of questions for the Prime. Although the Prius mathematically matches 51 percent of EV commuters’ yearnings, it leaves an emotional barrier for 49 percent of them. David: “If I can get a Model 3 or a Bolt for close to what a Prime costs, I would go with their all-electric 200-mile (322-km) range. I like my Prius, but it seems like the Prime is adding electric as an afterthought.” An afterthought? I disagree. A savvy calculation. But the battery’s presence noticeably complicates the car. There’s about a 1-inch hump in the cargo floor, and the second row has been rejiggered into two seats—“with five aboard, the car would be too heavy,” admitted an engineer. Moreover, when that seatback is folded, the extended load floor becomes uneven (though those two remaining chairs sure offer business-class spaciousness compared to the Volt’s steerage). One wonders how much the architecture of the TNGA-chassis-ed Prius took this battery into account.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime front three quarter 07

Cars are always a struggle between heart and mind. While the original Prius Plug-in quickly let go of both ends of that rope, the Prime is pulling hard at each. Mind: Once again, its cost should substantially undercut the Volt’s; it claims to be the world’s most efficient plug-in hybrid (120 mpg-e in battery mode), and its 600-mile (966-km) total range could see occupants die of renal failure before stopping for gas. There are some eye-widening tech goodies, too, including a 11.6-inch multi-touch, HD monitor and a supercool  carbon-fiber rear hatch. Moreover, it’ll be sold in all 50 states with Toyota’s TSS-P safety suite standard.

Heart: While the Frank Gehry styling is growing on me, not so on David. “I am not a big fan of its looks. It has so many different layers of paneling it looks like a patchwork. And how that wavy rear wing protrudes on the sides seems odd. There’s a lot going on back there—but I didn’t buy my Prius for its looks.” The Prime’s revised nose and full Batman stern strangely reminds me of a Pontiac. Makes me smile.

That said, David clicked off his movie, rolled over, and went to sleep.

I looked out the Dreamliner’s tinted window. David is exactly the person Toyota needs to convince here—a person with a natural emotional attraction to EVs, but he can pencil out the economics, too. Toyota seems to have the ingredients for a good argument here. The Prime finally has (just) enough battery for most folks’ needs and provides a proper EV experience—with it all backed up by the world’s most popular hybrid mode. Now it needs to make its case to guys like him.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime
BASE PRICE $31,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback
ENGINE 1.8L/95-hp/105-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus 2 electric motors, 110-hp comb (est)
TRANSMISSION Cont. variable auto
BATTERY CAPACITY/EV RANGE 8.8 kW-hr/22-miles
CURB WEIGHT 3,350 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 182.9 x 69.3 x 57.9 in
0-60 MPH 10.0 sec (est)
EPA FUEL ECON, COMB 120 mpg-e*; 52 mpg** (est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, COMB 28*; 65** kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0*; 0.37** lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Late 2016

 

*Charge-depleting mode
**Charge-sustaining mode

2017 Toyota Prius Prime front three quarter 03