Ever wondered how you could make a Toyota Prius even more fuel efficient and environmentally conscious, while also cramming even more convenience features and technology into its distinctive wrapper at the same time? This conundrum reminds us of some of the great engineering challenges that America has faced over the years. While brilliant minds, technological advances, and the occasional rocket scientist or two played a hand in solving these fore-mentioned problems, Toyota had a delicate balancing act to achieve when it came time to build its latest Prii offering. The end result is the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime, but does it succeed in pushing the relatively conservative envelope of the Prius into unexplored frontiers? or does it end up being washed up?
The exterior styling of our boldly hued Hypersonic Red Prime Plus tester tests the limits of aesthetic taste just as much as the standard Prius does. The front fascia is surprisingly bold, but do not mistake it for either the same balance of poise and beauty that defines entries like the Jaguar F-Type, or even functional modernism like the recently unveiled Honda Insight Prototype this is a look that will definitely depend on ones view of what style is . The side profile is a busy sea of creases, angles, and curves which leads out to the equally busy rear end. We will give Toyota points here for the sharp looking taillights as well as the carbon fiber rear hatch, but like the front end, the rear of the car is not attractive by any stretch of the imagination.
Thankfully the interior of the Prius Prime is not as extreme, and will be very familiar to those that have spent time in other Prius offerings. Our Plus level tester did not have the 11.6 touchscreen Entune premium infotainment system that sees duty in higher trim levels, but the standard 7.0 inch unit still did an excellent job delivering a crisp display, as well as a high degree of usability. While we did miss the bigger screen, if one looks at the fine print, it works like a two screen unit, with one locked permanently locked into the navigation screen. Considering how Tesla's massive screen has near tablet like functionality, we hope that Toyota engineers get the memo, and address this quirk in a future update of the system.
The cloth seats in our tester may look like they were plucked straight out of the 1990's, but don't let that fool you, they are actually decently comfortable, and front seat occupants actually have a generous amount of space to stretch out and relax. Rear seat passengers also have healthy amounts of rear legroom with the floor mounted battery pack not eating into passenger foot room too much. Headroom is also pretty good, but the Prime's low stance does force occupants to watch their heads when entering, especially into the rear seat. Our tester also boasted decent levels of practicality, and it had commendable cargo room, though the space is slightly less than a normal Prius, which is partially due to the fore-mentioned battery pack, as well as the space needed to house the charging cord.
Performance for all Primes comes from a 95 horsepower 1.8 liter four cylinder engine and two electric motor/generator units that help produce a combined 121 horsepower. This figure is a bit on the meager side, and will instantly remind you that the Prius Prime is not out to make any friends out on the track or on the autocross course. This trio of power sources is mated to the front wheels through a novel planetary gearset that is designed to behave like a conventional CVT transmission. Shifts were smooth, but lack the accuracy that defines other transmission types. The latest iteration of the Prius's independent rear suspension does pay dividends in handling though, with our tester doing a reasonable job soaking up bumps and imperfections. Deep holes and ruts did reveal some shimmy in the structure due to the weight saving materials used, but overall, our tester felt confident and secure despite its low rolling resistance tires.
Unsurprisingly, the Prime (like the rest of the Prius lineup) does not like to be rushed to 60 mph, with our tester leisurely making the jog to 60 in 10 seconds flat under full hybrid steam. Look for EV mode to lump two extra seconds onto that already lofty figure, but that mode is designed more for city streets than long distance cruising. Ironically, EV mode is also where the Prius Prime shines, with our tester rewarding us with a smooth kick of instant torque when it came time to pass traffic in crowded city streets and neighborhood back routes.
Sadly, the juice only lasts for 20 miles, and when the gas engine kicks in, it is like being with that one friend you never want to take to a house party. The bulk of the blame lies in the CVT-esque character of the transmission which allows the engine to rev to the stratosphere, while it adjusts the drive ratio to increase speed. The end result is a disconnected experience that generates plenty of noise, but little in the way of acceleration. Like other plug-in hybrids, the Prius Prime has a rear mounted charging port which requires drivers to back into charging stations versus pulling forward. The cord itself has a good amount of reach, and we had no problem hooking it up to our wall mounted outlet during its time with us.
Pricing for the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime starts at $27,100 for base Plus models like our tester, with top tier Advanced models cresting $33,000. Our lightly optioned Plus model had a final MSRP of $28,380 thanks to its $395 special color choice, as well as the $895 destination fee attached to all Prime models. This pricing puts it narrowly below the Chevrolet Volt and its $34,095 base MSRP, though things get tighter after tax credits and other subsidies are factored into the equation. The Nissan Leaf could also be considered another competitor, especially with its more conventional styling cues drawing in more conservative eco car buyers. However, its cabin does not quite match the Prime's tech focused look, and it does not have an equivalent contender to the optional 11.0 inch infotainment screen.
Overall, the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is an interesting specimen in the green car market. While its polarizing styling will divide the masses, its tech focused cabin, and impressive levels of efficiency will certainly make it stand out from the average Prius offering. It's a tough sell, considering that the Volt offer superior driving dynamics, as well as better technology, and electric only range. Regardless, we look forward to seeing whats next for the Prius Prime, and whether Toyota engineers will make the 11.0 inch infotainment system a true Tesla fighting piece of technology in the years to come.