Toyota has spent over a decade defining what a "Prius" is in the minds of consumers: a hybrid, "the" green car, and a reliable way to use less gas than your neighbors do. As some point that ideological space got crowded with cars like the Tesla Model S, the Chevy Volt, and any number of gas-electric hybrid offerings. In response, Toyota is trying to shift the conversation over to the hydrogen future with the Mirai. But Toyota is not neglecting the vehicle and brand that got it this far down the green trail.
Toyota has spent over a decade defining what a "Prius" is.
Toyota claims that this is the best Prius it's ever made, which is why it was christened the Prime (when asked, no one would divulge which Prius is then the worst, but I'm sure someone will suggest an answer in the comments). You can never take PR spin at face value, but it's hard to combat this particular assertion. It's more efficient than any other Prius ever made, save for the Eco trim for the new standard Prius, and it comes with 25 miles of electric range from to a new 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery. Despite some disagreement about the design, especially around the front end, this is the best-looking Prius available. I'm pretty sure it looks better than the regular Prius, from every angle. All that you lose is a fifth seat, a rear wiper thanks to a cool-looking but wonky rear window (Toyota calls it "dual wave"), and some extra money.
Let's start there, with the cost, because that's going to be a key reason that makes people care about the Prime. Not counting any state or federal incentives, the new plug-in Prius starts at $27,100 for the base trim, called the Plus. That's $3,000 lower than the original Prius Plug-In. The two other trims levels are the Premium at $28,800 and the Advanced at $33,100. All three qualify for up to $4,500 in federal tax credits. Considering that the standard Prius starts at $24,685, getting the many benefits of the Prime for an after-credit price of $22,600 is truly compelling. Toyota wants you to compare these numbers to the Chevy Volt, of course ($33,220 MSRP, or $25,720 after a $7,500 tax credit) but the real numbers to be look at here are the all-electric range and miles per gallon after the battery runs out. Depending on your personal driving situation, those will be much more important than up-front cost.
The new plug-in Prius starts at $27,100.
The Prius Prime is, duh, no slouch in the miles per gallon fuel efficiency race. It will get an EPA-estimated 55 mpg in the city, 53 on the highway, and 54 combined. Throw in
Like the new Volt, the Prius Prime drives better than you would expect a green car to do. Hopefully, some day soon, we'll all realize that green does not automatically mean underpowered and sloppy. It may not be saying much, but for driving dynamics, the Prime is a far better choice than the new Corolla (which was also on hand in Ohai and we were able to test on the same roads), thanks to the new TNGA platform that the fourth-gen Liftback also uses.
For some background on the Prime, check out our First Drive of a prototype version. This vehicle isn't that much different now than it was a few months ago. Nonetheless, knowing the details about fuel efficiency and price helps put things into context. Plus, a few hours in the mountains outside Ojai, California are a better and prettier way to judge a car than a controlled afternoon on a test track.
On a somewhat energetic run up the foothills, we managed to get the trip fuel economy display down to 30.1 miles per gallon. But, when we turned the controversial nose around and drove back down hill (again, somewhat aggressively, because there are fun twists up there), the display not only crept back up to show over 53 mpg, but it had also managed to shove over four miles of electric range back in the battery. That's just great, getting over 50 mpg in the mountains.
And those 50-mpg miles were pretty fun. The Prime shines when it's driving on battery power. It's smoother and quieter and simply more pleasant. When the 1.8-liter DOHC 16-VVT-i Atkinson cycle engine kicks in, it's a whiny little thing, and you can hear it. Vibrations come through the floor and you instantly miss the nifty silence of EV drive. Invasive engine noise is not a dealbreaker, just something to be aware of when you test drive one in the coming months. The Prime will be a 50-state car, so anyone in the US who wants to try it out will get a chance.
The Prime shines when it's driving on battery power.
You'll be forgiven if this next part is a bit confusing (as it was last time). The Prime offers six different "modes," but they're really grouped in two sets of three, and each set can be toggled through independently of the other. On the one side, there's EV, HV, and EV Auto. On the other, there's Eco, Normal, and Power. EV Mode is the setting you want in order to prioritize electric driving, and you have to either go over 84 miles per hour or really stomp on the pedal to get the gas engine to come on. HV mode tells the Prime to pretty much operate like a normal Prius, drawing power from the gas engine and battery pack as needed, while EV Auto mode switches between EV and HV mode automatically. The good news is that EV is the default (as it should be), and I can't really think of a reason why you wouldn't just keep it in EV mode all of the time.
But the other three settings we can see people cycling through depending on where they're driving. They all monitor and adjust throttle response to keep your energy usage to a minimum. Eco mode is the best for day-to-day movement, especially in a commute full of traffic, normal is the Prime's default and then Sport provides a little bit of pep. None of these will wow you with high G-forces, as stated above, but at least there's a little variation available as you drive.
The feel and look from the driver's seat is pleasant and mostly intuitive, except for the fact that too many physical buttons have been removed (in the higher trim levels) and turned into virtual blocks on the 11.6-inch touchscreen or touch-sensitive pads in the center console. Yes, the giant screen (the largest Toyota has ever built) smacks of the Tesla Model S, but it's not quite as big or responsive. This is understandable, because, c'mon, look at the price difference. The screen itself is user-friendly thanks to Toyota's decision to keep your navigation information almost always available on the top of the screen (well, not all the way at the top, since Toyota decided for some reason to include a little Prius icon at the very top, taking away a half-inch or so of real estate for no purpose) leaving the bottom half open to rotate through audio or heating/cooling controls, energy flow information, and other details. The top-of-the-line Advanced model also offers a suite of Prime apps, which allow you to interact with the car from your phone, doing things like setting charge times or even finding the vehicle in a crowded parking lot. Of course, if you have a smartphone, you can already do this with your current car, and you can also set a weekly schedule of charging times from the screen itself, no Prime Apps required.
The giant screen, the largest Toyota has ever built, smacks of the Tesla Model S.
Speaking of trim levels, there are three different Primes to choose from: Plus, Premium, and Advanced. All Primes will come with a version of the Toyota Safety Sense suite installed. This is the P level, which is what Toyota uses for its midsize and large vehicles. With TSS-P, you get pre-collision warning, lane departure alert with steering assist, and a warning when the vehicle starts to sway and the car thinks you might be tired. Radar cruise control and auto high beams are also part of the package. You only get the big touchscreen in the two more expensive models, but even the Plus comes with a 7-inch touchscreen. The Premium adds SofTex seats, remote illuminated entry, and Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging. Pony up the extra money for the Advanced trim and you also get a few more safety features (blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert), a heated steering wheel, a heads-up display and those fancy apps.
Put this all together and you have, without a doubt, the best Prius ever. High fuel economy? Check. More electric range than ever before? Check. A sweet safety suite? Check. Of course, the best won't be the best for long, and there are changes - big and small - on the horizon. On the small side, things like the missing fifth seat are likely to change some day. A much bigger shift is potentially being previewed in the Prime as well. Toyota put a tremendous amount of resources into developing the Prime and, as I learned at the launch event, it just might herald a dramatic change in the Prius brand. As part of Toyota's stated efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels from all its vehicles, the next-gen Prius line-up might go all plug-in. To do that, though, the Prime has to sell in decent numbers, proving to the company that the PHEV strategy makes sense for the average car shopper. For a lot of commuters, I can unequivocally say this package does. Will that be enough to change the course of a company? The answer to that question is something I most certainly care about.