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2017 Toyota Prius Prime: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Jason Fogelson October 2016

Since its arrival in North America in 2000, the Toyota Prius has been the dominant hybrid vehicle. Now comes the launch of the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime, the latest plug-in hybrid version of the popular model. Incorporating all of the styling and engineering changes of the 2016 hybrid model, the Prius Prime piles on new features, a better driving experience and an extended electric range that will send shivers down the spines of the competition.

Primed for Success

When Toyota unveiled the new Prime at the 2016 New York Auto Show, we were a little skeptical. The presentation was bombastic and bold, with a magnesium-blue vehicle rolling up the aisle as Toyota's Group Vice President and General Manager Bill Fay touted the plug-in's merits. It seemed like just another Prius variant.

There have been plenty of Prius variants since 2000. The 2004 Prius introduced the now-familiar liftback form. In 2010, we saw the lineup grow to four trim levels, with more sophisticated technology available. The 2012 model year added the first plug-in Prius, the Prius V wagon and the subcompact Prius C. And in 2016, the Prius got its second redesign, with an all-new rear suspension and other improvements.

Now, we've had a chance to drive the 2017 Prius Prime, and the game has changed.

What's Different About the Prius Prime?

The significant difference between the Prius and the Prius Prime is the way it manages its powertrain. The Prius uses a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain to maximize fuel-efficiency. Computers control the balance between the gas engine and an electric motor to drive the front wheels, while a second electric motor handles functions like climate control, gas-engine starting and other actions. Two battery packs (one nickel-metal hydride, one lithium-ion) store energy.

The Prius Prime rewrites the formula. It still has a gasoline engine and two electric motors, but now both electric motors work together to drive the front wheels, and there's a single, larger (8.8 kilowatt-hours) lithium-ion battery. The battery pack can be charged in a similar fashion to the Prius packs, capturing energy while braking and generating power from the gas engine. But the Prime's battery pack can also be charged directly by plugging in to Level I (household) power or Level II (240-volt) sources, either at home or at commercial charging stations. Because the Prime has more battery power available, it can run farther, faster and longer on electricity only -- up to 25 miles at speeds of up to 84 miles per hour.

Additionally, the Prime gets full standard LED exterior lighting (LED fog lamps are optional), an available 11.6-inch touchscreen, a heads-up display, Intelligent Parking Assist, Intelligent Clearance Sonar, a heated steering wheel, Qi-compatible wireless charging and Prime smartphone apps.

Prime Exterior Perks

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime will be available in seven paint schemes, including two exclusive Prime-only colors: Blue Magnesium and Titanium Glow. New 15-in 5-spoke alloy wheels with 2-tone wheel covers will dress the corners. Thanks to revised front and rear styling treatments, the Prius Prime is about 4.2 inches longer than the Prius. A new ceramic-coated front grille overlays an active grille shutter to improve aerodynamic performance in electric-only mode. The rear hatch has been reworked with a carbon-fiber structure to reduce weight and improve rigidity.

Prime Interior Design Touches

For the most part, the Prime retains the basic design of the 2016 Prius makeover. Some additional brightwork has been added for a more upscale feel, and a new SofTex trim material upgrades the leather trim. Three trim levels are available for 2017: Plus, Premium and Advanced. Plus models get the same 7-in color touchscreen display as the Prius Three and above, while Premium and Advanced Prime models get a new 11.6-in HD touchscreen (mounted in portrait aspect in the center stack, reminiscent of the Tesla screen).

The Prius Prime is set up to seat four, with an armrest and cupholders separating the second-row seats. Premium and Advanced models have heated power front seats. The larger battery pack steals some space from the cargo hold, resulting in 19.8 cu ft. of cargo capacity, versus 24.6 to 27.4 cu ft. in the Prius. More space can be opened up by folding the second-row seats flat. A cargo-hold tonneau cover is standard on all trims (lightweight on Plus and Premium, sliding heavyweight on Advanced), and there's a covered storage box at the rear of the cargo floor.

Prime Safety

All Prime models get Toyota's STAR safety system, which include anti-lock rakes, traction control, brake assist, enhanced vehicle-stability control, electronic brake-force distribution and smart stop technology. They also come equipped with Toyota Safety Sense Premium (TSS-P). This suite of technology includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with a steering-assist function and a vehicle-sway warning system, automatic high beams and full-speed dynamic-radar cruise control.

The 2016 Prius received Good ratings in all categories from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, including front-crash prevention, as well as a 5-star overall rating from SaferCar.gov, so we expect the 2017 Prius Prime to get the same ratings. Each Prius Prime comes with eight airbags and LATCH connectors for approved child seats.

Prime Drive

We drove the new Prime in and around Ojai, California, during Toyota's launch event. Ojai is a hidden gem of a town, tucked away in the hills between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. This prime location provided prime opportunities to test the Prime in a variety of conditions, from congested roads in town to twisting canyon passes and brief freeway blasts.

Prime has three drive modes: EV, HV and Auto. EV keeps the gas engine out of the picture, motivating the Prime with just electric power for up to 25 miles. Toyota doesn't quote performance figures, but a seat-of-the-pants rating says that Prime does just fine in EV mode. Ample torque from the electric motors scoots the Prime off the line with authority to merge with traffic, enter a moving freeway and accelerate up an incline. The near-silent operation is offset with road noise from the hard tires, but you still get the thrill of electric driving, and keeping up with California's notoriously fast freeway drivers presents no challenge at legal speeds.

HV mode allows the gasoline engine to kick in for even better performance and doesn't introduce very much additional noise. Like all Prius models, Prime's gas engine stops and starts automatically with demand and works seamlessly with the electric motors. Auto mode allows the Prime's brain to optimize the balance between EV and HV for the most efficient use of fuel and battery power. The electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission is similarly transparent in operation and always seems to have the Prime humming at the right levels.

One side benefit of the larger battery pack is that it feels like it balances the Prime better than it does the regular Prius. The weight is low and centered in the vehicle, and cornering on curvy roads can be almost fun. The Prime is certainly stable and predictable, allowing you to push the car through the corners with precision.

Prime's regenerative brakes display some numbness, but not at the expense of braking ability. Once you get used to easing on and off the brakes, Prime rewards you with smooth driving.

Prime Efficiency and Range

The Prius Prime will have the best fuel economy and efficiency ratings in its class when it debuts. Gas mileage estimates come in at 55 miles per gallon in the city, 53 mpg on the highway and 54 mpg combined, while electric-only operation is rated at 124 mpg equivalent. The Prime's range is estimated at 640 miles (combined gasoline-electric hybrid operation) and 25 miles of electric-only operation. Oh, and charging at 120 volts takes less than 5.5 hours, while charging at 240 volts takes less than 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Pricing and Trim Levels

The Prius Prime Plus starts at $27,000, while the Premium starts at $28,800, and the Advanced starts at $33,100. Add $865 to each model for destination charges. Toyota will throw in a $100 credit you can use at ChargePoint charging stations for a limited time. There's a current Federal tax credit of $4,500, and many states offer tax credits of up to $2,000 on plug-in hybrids, which takes some of the bite out of the purchase price.

Is It Prime Time for Prius Prime?

Plug-in hybrids seem to solve the problem of range anxiety that still hangs over electric-only cars while still providing enough range and utility for many electric-only uses. Chevrolet Volt and Ford Fusion Energi owners rave about their low fuel costs, as do owners of the previous-generation Prius Plug-In. The 2017 Prius Prime is the best-sorted plug-in hybrid available, advancing the Prius legacy significantly. If you don't need the latest technology, the Prius Prime Plus gives you the drivetrain of its more heavily equipped brethren at a good price, especially if you can take advantage of tax credits. If purchase price is not your critical factor, the Prius Prime Advanced impresses with its high-tech advantages. Drive one on your favorite twisty road before you make a decision. Even if you don't buy a Prius Prime, you'll have a fun ride.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2017 Toyota Prius Prime: First Drive Review - Autotrader