When I heard Toyota's Prius Prime Advanced had only 25 miles of electric range on offer, the idea of the plug-in Prius sounded laughable.
After all, the Chevrolet Volt offers 53 miles on battery power alone before the engine has to fire up, so it's hard to imagine that something offering half the range would make sense.
But after spending a week with the Prius Prime, I'm starting to think that Toyota (7203.T-JP)'s approach makes quite a bit of sense.
Exterior: Not the car's strong point, that's for sure
Oh, boy. We're not starting on the Prius' typical strong point. The fourth-generation Prius, on which the Prime is based, has controversial styling. Some think it's modern and a good advancement of the design, some believe it was created by sticking a third-generation Prius in a trash compactor. Your author falls into the latter category.
An updated, acrylic grille removes the awkward beakishness from the face of the Prius and revised taillights smooth out the overly upright-looking rear of the traditional Prius.
The wavy LED lights that make up the back of the car are accompanied by cool concave glass that matches the curvature of the lights, even if that means giving up a rear windshield wiper. It still has its fair dose of Prius-y details, from the aero-friendly wheels to the frumpy shape, but it's easily the nicest interpretation of the Prius I've seen to the date.
As I got into the car outside my aunt's house, a passerby even remarked that it looked "sporty." I don't agree.
Interior — hit and miss
My tester was a Prius Prime Advanced with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $35,112, which meant it came with an 11.6-inch tablet screwed into the dash. I've started here because it's always the first thing you'll notice when you hop in. I assumed the detail would be all style and no usability.
I was shocked to find that it was easily the best interpretation of Toyota's Entune infotainment system I've tried, with smooth operation and reasonably laid out menus. One thing that irritated me was the lack of a volume knob, as using a touch-sensitive button for a job that a knob would clearly do better seems totally bone-headed.
Toyota steadfastly refuses to allow Apple CarPlay or Android Auto into its cars. I can't see the business sense in ignoring two excellent technologies that integrate cars and technology better than anything Toyota offers.
The rest of the interior is typical Prius fare, with the strange center-mounted gauge cluster. Also, Toyota's so relentlessly practical that I'm shocked it would stick the seat heaters way down low, under the dash. You can't even see the passenger side one from the driver's seat, so Toyota had to stick a "passenger heater on" light next to the driver's-side control.
But the big miss on the interior is in the back. Like the first-generation Volt, the Prius Prime comes with four seatbelts. The center of the back row offers no seating, just an arm rest and some cupholders. Seeing as the new Volt packs a bigger battery and still has a belt for the middle rider, it seems like Toyota didn't spend enough time in packaging school before shipping the Primes to dealers.
Driving experience — slow like a slug
It's a Prius.
You aren't expecting driving excitement and it won't deliver it. It handles competently, rides comfortably and is absurdly quiet. It's also slow. That's not the right word. A four-cylinder Camry is slow.
The Prime is glacial.
The payoff is a 133 miles per gallon equivalent rating from the EPA, besting the Volt by 27 MPGe. The math behind MPGe is absurd, but it essentially means how efficient the car is in electric mode.
Adding the gas range to the 25 miles of electric drive, the Prius is rated for a massive cruising range of 640 miles. Charging every night, I used less than a quarter of a tank during my drive test.
You may be wondering, after all of the above, why you would consider a Prime. Value, that's why.
Starting at $27,100, it's already a lot of car for the money. You get Toyota's suite of active safety equipment, LED headlights, a 7.0-inch touch screen with navigation and a backup camera. You can option up to the Advanced to get more goodies in exchange for $35,112, but I'd stick with the "Plus."
When you factor in the $4,500 federal tax rebate you get for buying a plug-in with a battery of this size, the real cost drops to $22,600.
At that price, there isn't anything else that offers this much space and comfort. Packing legendary Toyota reliability and an advanced hybrid system, there also isn't anything that offers such a low cost of ownership.
Toyota says it wanted the Prime to "[u]tilize the full benefits of a Plug-In Hybrid vehicle." Taking the tax credit, keeping the base price low and maximizing technology is a really effective way of doing that. If you're considering a Prius and can live without a fifth seat, the Prime is a high-quality, inexpensive way to stand out in the parking lot.
Exterior: 3 stars
Interior: 3 stars
Drive Experience: 4 stars
Value: 5 stars
Rating: 3.5 stars
Price as configured: $35,112