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2017 Prius Prime review

Believe it or not, I’m actually a fan of the standard Toyota Prius — but don’t go telling everyone that, I’ve got an image to maintain. Over four generations, Toyota has continued to refine and improve its signature hybrid into one of the most fuel-efficient cars that you can buy without a plug. (It’s second only to the new Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.) Of course, adding a plug to the equation — and all of the advantages that come with a plug-in hybrid — should only make the Prius more desirable.

Only, Toyota didn’t just add a plug and a bigger battery to the 2017 Prius Prime and call it a day. The automaker also made a host of changes to the cabin tech, visual style and features, some good and some very bad.

In the end, the Prius Prime is, in some ways, worse at being a car than the standard Prius liftback while also being a much better Prius. I’m sure that sounds confusing, so allow me to explain.

Prime plug-in hybrid

Beneath the Prius’ hood is a mostly familiar version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) power train. The system pairs a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine with a 53 kW electric motor. The gasoline engine supplies 95 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque and the electric motor adds 71 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque to the mix. Peak system power is stated at 121 horsepower, because hybrid math is never as simple as addition; total system torque is not stated.

Being the plug-in version of Toyota’s signature hybrid means that the Prime also needs more electric capacity to take advantage of its ability to plug-in and recharge. So, Toyota has outfitted the PHEV with a larger 8.8 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack. (For comparison, the standard Prius is only packing 0.75 kWh. Now, all of that extra battery hardware has to go somewhere and, in the Prime’s case, it ends up significantly eating into the trunk’s capacity. Plug-in drivers only have about 19.8 cubic feet of cargo space (down from 24.8) behind the second row seats and even less if they want to use the privacy cover to hide their belongings from view.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime: Meaner style,…
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2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

For the trouble, each recharge of the larger battery pack grants the Prime driver an EPA estimated 25 miles of gasoline-free, full-electric motoring. From flat, the Prime’s battery charges at Level 2 speeds in about 2 hours.

The EPA reckons a combined fuel economy estimate of about to 133 mpge for those first full EV miles and 54 mpg for each gasoline-fueled mile beyond. With daily recharges and about 50 miles driven per day, I averaged at between 80-90 mpge for the week though, with more consistent charging or a commute with fewer highway miles, I could probably do much better.

Electric feel

I may be wrong, but it feels like the PHEV is less stingy with its electrons when it knows there’s a reasonable reservoir at its disposal. In EV mode, the Prime feels fairly confident with strong acceleration and that immediate electric car torque that makes the throttle feel very responsive.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The extra efficiency is sweet, but I also appreciated the flexibility that the PHEV afforded. For example, I didn’t have to use the 25 miles of EV range first. With the touch of a button, I was able to toggle manually between hybrid, electric and automatic drive modes to conserving the electric range for an urban segment at the end of a highway commute where it can have more impact on overall efficiency. Or, I could just let the computer figure it all of that out for me.

In its regular, gasoline-electric hybrid operation mode, the Prime starts to feel like exactly what it is: a heavier Prius. Despite increased use of lightweight composites in its construction, the extra batteries add a bunch of weight to the equation — about 300 pounds for those counting. In its hybrid mode, the electric torque is less apparent, so I could feel the weight when trying to maintain speed uphill, pass on the highway or round a bend.

Flashy display trades function for form

Besides the whole plug-and-battery bits, the biggest change for the Prius Prime happen in the dashboard, which is a bit of a mess. Toyota has equipped the plug-in hybrid with a massive vertically oriented 11-inch color display. It’s a flashy unit with bright colors that are sure to evoke oohs and aahs from passengers, but the interface itself leaves much to be desired.

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