2017 Toyota Prius Prime Review

What's more fun than driving fast? Driving smart, in the gamified Prius Prime

The Toyota Prius Prime will make you rethink alternative fuel vehicles.
The Toyota Prius Prime will make you rethink alternative fuel vehicles.
The Toyota Prius Prime will make you rethink alternative fuel vehicles.

Highs

  • Feedback makes eco driving fun
  • Huge display pairs with common phone apps
  • Clean, attractive interior, uncluttered dash
  • Supportive and comfortable seats
  • Impressive overall range minimizes fuel stops

Lows

  • Polarizing styling
  • Phone charging glitches
  • Backup sound cannot be deactivated

Toyota started the hybrid vehicle movement with the introduction of the first Prius in Japan in 1997. Three years later, it saw a global release and became the darling of eco-conscious celebrities. According to Toyota, sales of the carmaker’s hybrid vehicles have surpassed the 10 million mark. Toyota currently produces 33 different hybrid vehicles (including models from Lexus, the company’s luxury arm) in 90 countries, and the Prius Prime is the latest offering.

Earlier Prius models were renowned for their fuel economy, but not for their driving prowess. With the Prime, Toyota promises more capability along with greater efficiency. This should increase the market appeal and help legitzmize hybrids as more than just a quirky automotive fad.

What’s New

The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is a new model based on the fourth generation Prius. It is the successor to the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and features extended all-electric range with a higher top speed, along with a completely redesigned interior and exterior.

Trim Levels & Features

The four-passenger Prius Prime comes in three flavors: Plus, Premium, and Advanced. The Plus carries an MSRP of $27,100 and standard features include quad-LED headlights, Entune audio with six speakers and integrated navigation, a 7-inch touch display, hill start assist, automatic temperature control, remote A/C, full digital instrumentation, push-button start, power windows, and a rear center console.

The $28,800 Premium gets an 11.6-inch HD display (the largest Toyota has ever put in a production model), auto-leveling headlights, SofTex synthetic leather seats, an eight-way power driver’s seat, a smart charging cable lock, Qi wireless charging, and Predictive Efficient Drive.

The top-tier $33,000 Prime Advanced adds a heads-up display that shows speed, navigation, and battery charge. It also features LED foglights (the only exterior feature that distinguishes the Advanced), rain-sensing wipers, heated steering wheel, a tonneau cover for the cargo area, auto-dimming mirror with HomeLink, JBL audio with ten speakers, parking assist, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. The available Prime Apps display eco stats and let you manage the remote charging and climate systems.

All Prime models come with 15-inch alloy wheels with two-tone covers that cheapen the car’s look, though this was likely done for improved aerodynamics. You can remove the covers to reveal some nice 5-spoke wheels, but you won’t have center caps. The standard Prius, informally known as the liftback, offers standard 17-inch alloys without covers on its touring models. You can opt for different 15-inch wheels from Toyota’s accessories catalog for your Prime, though this will cost you extra. Failing that, you could see if the dealer will toss you a few center caps.

Technology Overview

Our Prius Prime Premium’s 11.6-inch HD display was reminiscent of the larger screen found in the Tesla’s Model S and X vehicles. It not only looks like a tablet, but it also shares the same familiar swipe, zoom, pinch, and tap functionality. The buttons on either side of the display are touch sensitive.

You can use the split-screen capable display for familiar functions like navigation, climate control, and audio, but this is Toyota’s most advanced hybrid vehicle, and this is where you can get your first glimpse into its tech.

There is an optimal way to drive when it comes to efficiency, and the Prime will let you know if you are too hard on the brakes and gas.

Our go-to display was the Energy Monitor, an animated graphic that shows your power usage in real time. Arrows move back and forth between four elements: engine, electric motor, climate, and battery. When you use power, such as during acceleration, arrows indicate where the energy is coming from as it is sent to the front wheels. When you release the throttle or press the brake (activating the regenerative system) the power goes back into the battery.

The display shows trip information, but this goes beyond simple mileage and average speed. It also reveals how much juice you regenerated in addition to mpg. You can see how much power you pulled from the battery or motor or both. You can then pull up your past records and view your best and average mpg by date.

Download the Entune app and pair your smart phone to the car, gaining big-screen access to apps for Pandora, iHeart Radio, Open Table, MovieTickets.com, Yelp, Facebook, and more. You can also check traffic and the weather and find the nearest gas station. Note that all this uses your phone’s data.

You can charge your phone via the Qi-compatible wireless charging dock or the USB ports. This latter method gave us problems when we plugged in an iPhone. First, the charging process kept switching on and off. Second, the car’s display would reset out of nowhere. We weren’t sure if this was tied into the phone’s USB charging, but then we confirmed it by digging up an old charging adapter and plugging the phone into the car’s 12V auxiliary power outlet. Once this was done, the phone charged normally and the display stopped resetting. Hopefully this bug will be improved with a firmware update or at least by the next model year.

A 4.2-inch in-dash color display with customizable screens includes an energy monitor, drive monitor, hybrid system indicator, eco score, eco diary, climate control, driver support systems, audio, and navigation. Think of this as a shortcut, as you can view much of the same data you’d get from the bigger display but in a place that’s in your driving line of sight. The data is also more simplified and easier to read at a glance.

2017 toyota prius prime review premium

The Prime lets you track your economy score, which shows how efficiently you are driving. There is an optimal way to drive when it comes to efficiency, and the Prime will let you know if you are too hard on the brakes and gas.

The Premium comes with Toyota’s Predictive Efficient Drive system, which collects data on your daily driving behavior, noting where you slow down and stop the most often. The next time you drive to that point, the car will remind you to ease off the acceleration and can even assist in deceleration to boost your fuel economy. The more you drive, the more the system learns, though it can be switched off.

Interior Fit & Finish

Our Prius Prime’s seats and steering wheel were lined with SofTex, a synthetic leather that feels and smells like the real thing. The material is supposedly more breathable than leather, so it will not retain heat as much when the car is left out in the sun. It should also be easier to clean.

The Moonstone two-toned color interior treatment extended to the seats, door panels, console, and dash. Smooth, glossy white plastic lined the steering wheel and lower console, giving the vibe of a high-tech and smart product. This blended well with the other white surfaces in the car.

Though automakers love to advertise the “green-ness” of their vehicles, many have adopted blue as the color of choice to detail their most efficient offerings. Volkswagen, Honda, and Nissan are among the big names to add touches of blue to emblems and interior trim, and Toyota is no different. Our Prime had aqua-blue accents surrounding the air vents, blue stitching in the seats, and both the shifter and start button were blue. This extends to the exterior, where the Toyota badges as well as the “Prime” logo are filled in with blue.

The power seats were supportive and comfortable, and the armrests were a welcome addition on longer trips. There is good legroom in the back, which seats two adults. Why is the Prime a four-seater? Well, the on-board charger sits between those two rear seats. And having a third seat would add weight from both the seat itself and extra structural support, not to mention the addition of another passenger.

You have to reach a bit under the console to activate the heated seats. It’s possible that Toyota purposely put the buttons out of the way so you minimize use of the butt warmers. If you turn them on, your “eco score” is affected negatively.

The Prime’s trunk loses some space to the standard Prius, due to a raised deckboard that accommodates the larger battery underneath. However, the deck sides are concave, allowing some more space and there are storage boxes back there.

You could stack a couple of large suitcases, or a few pieces of smaller luggage with room for smaller items. The trunk accommodates the goods from an average family-sized grocery run. If you need more room, the rear seats fold down flat (though the rear compartment is slightly raised), giving you an amount of space sufficient to haul small furniture or a large-screen TV.

Driving Performance & MPG

The Prime packs the same engine as the Prius liftback: a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline four-cylinder that puts out 95 horsepower. The Prime’s 8.8kWh lithium-ion battery packs more than double the capacity of the battery in the Prius Plug-in Hybrid it replaces. The hybrid system’s net output is 121 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.

The prime has three different drive modes: HV mode combines the gasoline engine with electric power from the battery to drive the vehicle; EV mode uses the battery alone; and EV Auto Mode switches between the two for the most efficient drive, relying mostly on electric power but calling up the gas engine as needed.

Once you get moving in hybrid mode, it feels like you are driving a comparably sized hatchback in this class.

HV mode slowly recharges the battery, but if you hold the HV button down for a few seconds, the car will use more of the gas engine’s power to charge the battery faster, up to 80 percent of its full capacity. Using the onscreen data, we figured we were putting about 1.5 miles of electric range back into the battery for every mile we drove in charge mode.

The Prime is the first Prius to use a dual-motor drivetrain. It adds a one-way clutch that engages both the generator and electric motor for vehicle movement. Essentially, the generator is tapped as a second motor in addition to its normal regenerative and starting duties. So when you are in EV mode, you have two electric motors powering the wheels, which gets you better range and performance.

Within the three drive modes are three sub modes: ECO, Normal, and Power. The main difference between the three is acceleration. In ECO mode, there is a hesitation when you press the accelerator pedal, though it evens out as your speed increases. Normal mode feels … normal, while Power is the sharpest the three.

The Prime’s shifter is a small blue knob (a joystick, really) located at the bottom center of the dash. It took some fiddling to get used to, which wasn’t helped by the fact that you cannot tell what gear you are in from the shifter itself. For that, you have to look up at the dash display. This is probably why Toyota chose to include an audible droning beep when you are in reverse.

About that backup beep — we searched every menu and option for a way to turn it off, but had no luck. After scouring the forums, we learned that the best way to disable it is to ask at the dealership.

2017 toyota prius prime review hood
Albert Khoury/Digital Trends

Once you get moving in hybrid mode, it feels like you are driving a comparably sized hatchback in this class. The steering was smooth and responsive, and visibility was excellent.

When it came to sharp turns such as entrance and exit ramps, the Prime surprised us with some eager handling, though the regenerative braking system added some numbness when slowing down. It was also hard to shake the thought of that 265-pound battery sitting high out back.

We spent much of our time in HV Normal mode and enjoyed the smooth and comfortable ride, especially on our spontaneous 300-mile round trip from NYC to Atlantic City and back, when we did not have to stop once for fuel.

In EV mode, we had a silent, peppy commuter with a low-end kick that could easily do the claimed 25 miles, especially when you factor in regeneration. If your commute to work is under 30 miles, you could conceivably go back and forth all week without using any fuel. Just remember to plug in.

The Prius will go up to 84 mph on electric power alone, though this drains the battery very quickly.

Charging time from zero percent to full takes about five-and-a-half hours with a standard outlet. Public charging stations with 240V outlets cut the time down to just over two hours. Toyota cites 20,000 charging stations in the U.S., of which 60 percent are free to use.

You can put it in HV or EV Auto mode, ignore the graphs, and barely notice when the car switches between gas and electric power.

You can also convert an outlet at home to 240V. And if you’ve never used an electric or plug-in hybrid before, don’t worry — charging is as easy as plugging it in!

LED lights built into the top side of the dash indicate battery charge, and you can see them from your office or home window without having to go outside.

Toyota says you will get 615 miles out of the hybrid system and 25 miles in EV mode, for a total of 640 miles. This leads to a miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe) of 133. Actual mpg is rated at 54.

We averaged over 50 mpg overall in HV mode. This included some spirited driving, and we knew we could do better. In fact, we turned it into a game.

Think of the Prius Prime as a teacher setting out to reduce the amount of lead in your feet. Using the real-time energy and drive monitors while getting around became an important part of the experience, as we strove to improve our efficiency and get a better score on our ECO report card.

Turning on the air conditioner, heated seats, and other amenities reduced our eco score, so we used these sparingly. We placed the shifter in “B” (brake) mode during downhill EV rides to increase regeneration. We cut back on aggressive driving, even when others on the road were not doing so. At the end of each drive, we reviewed our stats and figured out how to improve them.

As a result of our best efforts to simulate normal, smooth daily driving, we reached 550 miles on a full 11.3-gallon tank of regular fuel.

Safety

Toyota’s Safety Sense P (TSS-P) system is standard across the Prius line. It includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, radar-guided cruise control with full stop technology, and automatic high beams.

The Star Safety System includes the usual alphabet soup found in many modern cars: stability control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and brake assist (BA).

The Prime scored “Good” in all five categories from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

How DT Would Outfit This Car

We liked our Prime Premium’s Hypersonic Red paint (a $395 option) and pleasant Moonstone interior. Of the five other colors offered, there is an attractive Blue Magnetism that goes well with blue trim pieces.

The best feature you get when stepping up from the Plus to the Premium (for an increase of $1,700) is the 11.6-inch screen. The big display gives you a better look at what this car has to offer. We warn you that it can get distracting and the glare at night could get on your nerves, though you can lower the brightness.

If you want to go with the Advanced, it will set you back $4,200 over the price of the Premium. You get the HUD, upgraded sound, foglights, and some extra driver aids and creature comforts. We could live without all that, but we do wish Toyota had integrated the Advanced’s Prime Apps into the other two trims, which include the ability to control and manage the climate and charge from your phone. You can also view your ECO Dashboard, check out a charging station map, and locate your vehicle.

Our Take

The Prime is the result of 20 years of development since the release of the first Prius. The best thing we can say about it is that for the most part, it drives much like a conventional internal combustion-powered vehicle. You can put it in HV or EV Auto mode, ignore the graphs, and barely notice when the car switches between gas and electric power. As long as you plug it in to charge each night, you will reap most of the benefits of the hybrid drive system.

For those more interested in utilizing the Prime’s full tech suite, there is plenty to keep you busy. We enjoyed learning to drive more efficiently — as if there was an egg under each pedal. Getting the best mileage felt like an accomplishment with each ride.

Is there a better alternative?

The four-passenger Chevy Volt starts at $34,095 and claims an electric mile range of 53, 42 overall mpg, 106 MPGe, and a total range of 420 miles. The Volt’s 18.4 kWh battery is larger and net power is higher than that of the Prime. We have yet to review the latest version of the Volt, but its greater electric range may steer those with short commutes its way. On the other hand, the Prime offers more total range and will always default to electric mode. Choice also comes down to styling, with the Prime eliciting more polarizing reactions.

There are other plug-in hybrids out there, including the yet-to-be-released Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid. It has no set price as of this writing, but the manufacturer’s site lists its all-electric range at “greater than 27 miles.” Net horsepower is listed at 139, and the battery is slightly larger than the Prime’s.

How long will it last?

Toyota consistently ranks among the top manufacturers for reliability, and the Prius family averages high scores. The Prius Prime comes with a three-year 36,000-mile basic warranty, and a 60,000 mile powertrain warranty.

Should you buy it?

If you have a short daily commute, the Prius Prime and its EV mode makes a lot of sense. You could get an all-electric vehicle, but then you will be limited to shorter trips, unless you want to shell out for a flagship model Tesla.

The Prius Prime give you the benefits of electric power without the range anxiety, as the gas engine is always there when you need it. There are gas-powered cars with mpg ratings close to that of the Prime, but they can’t make the switch to electric. With the Prime, you save at the pump, and with an available $4,500 tax credit, your money will go even further.

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