The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime replaces the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which Toyota ceased producing in June 2015 after several quiet years as the only plug-in hybrid in the Japanese auto giant’s lineup. The Prius Prime goes on sale in fall 2016.
Toyota has been openly skeptical about the market potential for plug-ins. The carmaker dipped its toes into the market several times—with limited releases of two RAV4 EV models, an electric version of the iQ minicar (which failed to reach production) and the original Prius Plug-in—but Toyota remains mostly committed to gas-electric hybrids and the multi-decade rollout of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
With the Prius Prime—which despite the name change is effectively the second-generation Prius Plug-in—Toyota is joining the growing pack of automakers positioning plug-ins as more than mere low-volume experiments. This shift signifies that the level of compliance necessary to satisfy regulators, and the size of the plug-in market, is undeniably on the rise.
The Toyota Prius continues to be the quintessential hybrid gas-electric, more than 15 years after its introduction. Every aspect of the Prius—from its drivetrain to its shape—has been fine-tuned for maximum fuel economy. Critics have long disparaged the Prius’s dorky wedge-shaped silhouette, even as others in the industry mimic its aerodynamic profile.
The Prius is less of a sore thumb on roads these days—especially after the 2016 model spiced up Prius styling with sharper angles, attempting to offer hints of a more muscular, less efficiency-obsessed car. The fourth-generation gas-electric Prius’s coefficient of drag hasn’t increased—it actually fell slightly to 0.24—but the midsize hatchback now conveys a touch more attitude.
The Prius Prime aims to dial that attitude up further with a more sculpted front fascia sporting a blacked-out grille and strips of LED fog and tail lights. From the back, the Prime adds a sweeping curvature to the geometric look of the fourth-gen hybrid model.
One look at the Prius Prime tells you that it’s no longer intended to be simply a Prius that plugs in. It’s positioned as the special premium Prius.
Toyota boosted the drivability of the 2016 Prius with a stiffened chassis and improved suspension. The Prime will also allow for electric-only driving at speeds of up to 84 miles per hour. That means drivers can stay in electric mode at speeds 22 mph higher than before, providing spirited highway maneuvering that won’t add to your gas consumption.
The higher electric-only output is available thanks to significant changes to the car’s powertrain configuration. Where the Prius Plug-in was capable of using either its larger 60-kilowatt motor or the smaller motor/generator, depending on which mode it was operating in, the Prime can use both motors at the same time—vastly increasing power output from the battery alone. Top power output in electric-only mode used to translate to slightly above 80 horsepower, but in the Prime, it’s grown to more than 91 hp.
Toyota hasn’t shared much else about performance yet. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph for the 2016 non-plug Prius remains in the sleepy 10-second range, although a boost in torque makes it a little stronger off the line. There’s a chance that the Prime will beat the standard Prius’s acceleration output, but we don’t know for sure at this point.
The raison d’etre of the Prius, in all its forms, is to save fuel—not provide driving excitement. If a more visceral connection with your ride is critical to you, the Prius Prime (like other models in the lineup) might not be the car for you.
With the Prius Prime, Toyota addressed the main knock on its predecessor: a small battery and puny electric range. The Prius Prime is expected to achieve an EV-only range of 22 miles thanks to its 8.8-kWh lithium ion battery pack—which doubles the capacity of the former 4.4-kWh pack. Granted, 8.8 kWh is still small compared to most competitors, but Toyota’s leg-up in hybrid engineering can more than make up for it depending on how you use your car.
Released in 2012, the first-generation Prius Plug-in came on the heels of nearly a decade of clamoring from Prius lovers for a plug-in version of Toyota’s revolutionary hybrid hatchback. Some enthusiasts went as far as to build or purchase aftermarket conversion kits consisting of a bigger battery pack and a charging system. These kits would typically cost a few thousand dollars and raise the all-electric range of a standard Prius to about 10 miles. But the reliability, longevity and safety of some of those conversions were questionable.
The first-generation Prius Plug-in offered Toyota’s famous reliability even if it didn’t best those conversions by much in terms of range. More importantly, the car’s exceptional 50-mpg efficiency in hybrid mode (after depletion of the EV battery) allowed it to beat plug-ins with much larger battery packs in the EPA’s newly created Miles-Per-Gallon Equivalent rating.
The Prius Plug-in’s 95 MPGe score was possible thanks to the drivetrain architecture. The standard gas-electric Prius has long dominated the hybrid fuel-economy race, and the 50-mpg achieved by the Prius Plug-in outside of EV mode was at least a step or two better than the extended range mileage of any competitor.
The Prius Prime is set to do the same. Thanks to the jump to 22 miles of range, the Prime is projected to achieve an overall 120 MPGe rating.
Real world fuel economy of course depends upon usage. If your driving patterns tend to yield shorter trips with frequent opportunities to charge in between, the Prius Prime could almost completely eliminate gas station trips from your routine.
The Prius Prime charges in about 5.5 hours from a standard 120-volt household outlet and in a little over two hours from a Level 2 charging station.
Some drivers might find the Prius Prime’s small battery liberating compared to other plug-ins. If you miss a chance to charge you’re only losing (at most) 22 miles of electric range, and with a fully drained battery, the car can still be expected to get more than 50 mpg in fuel economy.
What’s more, many shorter range plug-in hybrid owners choose to skip the hassle and expense of installing a Level 2 charging station in their homes. Since the vast majority of electric vehicle charging is done overnight—leaving plenty of time reach capacity using a 120-volt outlet—faster charge periods are usually unnecessary.
The most notable change to the interior of the Prius Prime is Toyota’s decision to turn the car into a four-seater. This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher, particularly as the Prime’s leading competitor, the Chevy Volt, goes in the opposite direction with its second-gen model.
One of the most common complaints about the original Volt was that it seated just four passengers. The Volt’s large T-shaped battery pack bisected the cabin to created a hump where a fifth passenger would otherwise place their legs. Chevy was so eager to remedy this that it added a cramped, fifth semi-seat that’s only really recommendable for small children and adults willing to contort themselves for the sake of a short ride.
The Prius on the other hand—while not the most comfortable car in the world for rear middle riders—has always been a real five-passenger vehicle. The fourth-generation 2016 Prius redesign continues to seat five, though the Prime does not. Evidently, Toyota feels that not only is a fifth seat not necessary in this particular vehicle but it’s actually better off without one. (For what it’s worth, Toyota says removing the seat helped to lighten the vehicle.)
In addition to the seating configuration, the Prime distinguishes itself from the non-plug Prius with technological amenities like an optional 11-inch touchscreen display. In terms of range, performance or exterior styling, no one would ever mistake the Prime for a Tesla, but Toyota is offering consumers Tesla-like infotainment amenities should they choose to pay for them. Some have even called the Prime’s overall interior aesthetic Tesla-like.
The Prius Prime hasn’t yet undergone official safety testing, but the 2016 Prius hybrid was an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, receiving perfect marks in every category. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Prius hybrid a 5-star overall rating. It received four stars in frontal crash and rollover tests, and five stars in the side crash rating.
There’s is no guarantee that the Prime will perform the same as its sibling, but the Prius has a longstanding reputation as one of the safer vehicles in its class.
The Prius Prime will also offer a number of standard safety features included in Toyota’s Safety Sense P suite, including collision alerts, automatic braking and dynamic cruise control. Optional safety features include head-up display, automatic high-beams, and blindspot and cross-traffic monitoring.
Pricing for the 2017 Prius Prime hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be key to Toyota plans to sell 20,000 units per year in the U.S. (up from about 13,000 sales in 2014, the last full year that the plug-in Prius was sold). The first-generation Prius Plug-in delivered just 11 miles of all-electric range at a price premium of more than $6,000 over a comparably equipped Prius III trim. This was particularly problematic for the American market, where federal plug-in vehicle tax credits are calculated based on battery size. Thanks to the Prius Plug-in’s tiny lithium ion pack, it was actually pricier post-tax-credit than the Chevy Volt, which yields more than three times as many electric miles to a charge.
Thanks to the Prime’s larger battery pack, it will be eligible for a larger tax write-off this time around. The Prius Plug-in offered buyers the minimum, $2,500 credit, but the Prime is expected to receive about $4,500. That should make a major difference in helping the Prius to compete with other plug-in hybrids, including the Volt.
Comparison with Similar Cars
With its upgraded 22 electric miles, the plug-in Prius no longer has the distinction of offering the shortest battery range of any plug-in. In fact, the Prius Prime is set to leapfrog much of the plug-in hybrid field. (Of course, nearly all first-generation plug-in hybrids and EVs will be replaced with new models with bigger battery packs, so it's a moving target.)
The Prime’s longer range, (expected) lower price, and higher federal incentive qualifications should make it more competitive against one other plug-in hybrid: the Chevy Volt. The two cars offer different approaches to the plug-in hybrid, but the Prime’s higher non-electric gas mileage still ensures a very low fuel cost for owners who don’t have long commutes.
As mentioned, the Prime is now a four-seater while the Volt is five-ish. If that makes the difference for you, you might consider opting for a roomier plug-in hybrid like the Ford Fusion Energi or Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. Neither is as fresh in its design cycle as the Volt or Prime, but both offer a comfort upgrade for the fifth passenger.
When it hits the market this fall, the Prius Prime will be the first Toyota plug-in model available in all 50 states. Previous Toyota efforts like the two RAV4 EV models and the Prius Plug-in were only available in California and about a dozen other states that have adopted its Zero Emissions Vehicle mandates.
For many Toyota dealers outside of these states, selling the Prime may prove to be a challenge. Despite training efforts, several carmakers who entered the national plug-in market had early difficulties bringing their sales staff up to speed on the ins and outs of a relatively new technology. If you plan on shopping for a Prime in an area where Toyota dealers may not be as familiar with plug-in hybrids, you may want to do a little extra research before hitting the dealership. This preparation, which might make you more knowledgeable than the sales staff, will allow you to fend off questions about spending more up front than a conventional hybrid—and help you stay resolute about your commitment to own a car that’s even more efficient and green than Toyota’s iconic gas hybrids.