Toyota's Prius earned its place as the poster car for hybrid vehicles, even becoming the best-selling car in California due to its extremely high fuel economy, but in recent years its star has faded against a wealth of new plug-in vehicles.
Prius Prime is actually the second generation of a plug-in Prius, sporting a new name and building on the excessively styled and impressively performing latest generation Prius Liftback. Like the Liftback, the Prime sports four doors and a rear hatch, but it adds a bigger battery pack, a charging port and a large, portrait-format 11.6-inch touchscreen. Oh, and that rear hatch? It's made of carbon fiber.
During a Toyota-sponsored press event, I drove the Prius Prime in Southern California, setting out in 100-degree weather with a full charge on the 8.8 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack. The air conditioning blasting, the Prius Prime accelerated smoothly and efficiently, letting me feel its inexorable electric torque off the line. The full charge meant its hybrid drive system chose to operate in electric mode, although I was told the gasoline engine kicks in over 84 mph.
Most importantly, the Prius Prime benefits from the new Prius platform, which handles well and drives like a normal car. In fact, I think the Prius feels slightly more engaging than the Camry or Corolla on the road. Because of the weight of its battery, the Prius Prime sacrifices the center seating position on the rear bench, making it a four-seater. And as a means of counteracting that weight, Toyota uses carbon fiber for the rear hatch, sourced from its own manufacturing plant and shaving 8 pounds from the car.
Once I had burned off the electric range, which Toyota pegs at 25 miles, the car seamlessly transitioned to hybrid mode, the engine firing up without shudder or noise. Operating as a hybrid, I found it difficult to tell when the engine was running.
Toyota says the total output from engine and motor comes to 121 horsepower, not a boastable number but wholly adequate for normal driving, especially considering the electric motor's off-the-line torque. The engine is the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder found in the Prius Liftback. The combination of engine and motor earns the Prius Prime fuel economy of 55 mpg city, 53 mpg highway and 54 mpg combined.
Add in the Prius Prime's electric range, and it scores an impressive 133 mpg equivalent number. As with any plug-in hybrid, fuel economy varies considerably depending on how much you can drive it under electric power. With a 10 mile commute, you might rarely visit a gas station.
Along with the Power, Normal and Eco drive modes found in the Prius Liftback, Prius Prime confuses the issue further with a set of complementary modes: EV, HV and EV Auto. That works out to nine different combinations among the drive modes, not even taking into account putting the transmission into its "B" mode, where it emphasizes regenerative braking to recharge the battery.
Some owners may geek out over the different settings, attempting to achieve the most optimized driving experience. But the modes reset to their defaults on startup, so every time you get in the car it will be in its Normal and EV modes, the latter switching to HV if the battery is depleted.
Beyond its electric drive capability, the Prius Prime sets itself apart from the Liftback with its impressive touchscreen, in a similar format to that seen in the Tesla Model S and Volvo XC90. At 11.6 inches, the portrait-format touchscreen dominates the center dashboard, and takes over climate control functions.
I enjoyed seeing maps in this large format and like how Toyota designed pop-up menus with bubble icons to let me access other functions. Under the surface, however, I found many of the same menu graphics familiar from other Toyota vehicles with smaller screens. For example, the destination options for navigation and the audio selection screens look the same. The larger screen keeps the map visible on its upper half, while other functions occupy the lower half.
Along with the usual digital audio sources, Bluetooth hands-free phone system and destination options, Toyota integrates its Entune Apps with the Prius Prime, enabling access to Yelp, OpenTable and online destination search, among other third-party apps. Entune Apps merely require a smartphone running the Toyota Entune app paired to the car through Bluetooth.
The Prius Prime includes a charging pad, useful for phones with Qi wireless charging, but only one USB port.
You won't see the large touchscreen on the base 2017 Toyota Prius Prime model, which uses the same landscape-format touchscreen found in the Prius Liftback, and comes in at price of $27,100. The large screen comes standard in the Prius Prime's upper trim levels, called Premium and Advanced, which go for $28,800 and $33,100, respectively. Toyota points out that the Prius Prime qualifies for a $4,500 federal tax credit, potentially taking a big chunk out of the price.
Compared to other plug-in hybrids, the Prius Prime's 25 miles of electric range comes in near the top, but falls far short of the Chevrolet Volt's 53 miles. The Volt also boasts Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, features not yet embraced by Toyota. The Prius Prime fires back with standard adaptive cruise control and a collision-prevention system that detects pedestrians, giving it an active safety advantage.
Editor's note: This review has been revised to show Toyota's updated miles-per-gallon equivalent number, which changed from 124 to 133.