TL;DR – The 2017 Prius Prime doesn’t deserve coverage on Electrek. While a significant improvement over its predecessor the Prius Plug-in, the Prime’s internal combustion engine continues to turn on unpredictably and it cannot function as a complete car without gasoline.
I’ve been a Toyota Prius owner for almost 8 years. I loved my 2008 Prius so much that I decided to step up my game and get a 2012 Prius Plug-in. I regret that now because we had also looked at the Chevy Volt but the rear seat room vs. the Volt’s 4 seat option won out.
The local Toyota dealership sold me on the Plug-in version of the Prius getting 12 miles of range before the ICE motor kicked in. For me, that would have taken care of my commute and my wife could have gotten to work, charged up and gotten home without ever using a drop of gasoline. For long trips we’d use the gasoline and still get the great 50+mpg mileage of a Prius. Perfect! I don’t need the 2012 Volt’s 43 miles of range. Except one thing: The Prius Plug-in doesn’t go 12 miles on electricity or, in my case, often even get out of the driveway on electricity…
And I found out this week that Toyota’s new Prius Prime, while certainly an improvement in many areas over the Plug-in it replaces, still doesn’t function like the EV it pretends to be…
Run your house off your car and an inverter
Don’t get me wrong – you can, if you really try, get 10 or so miles out of a Prius Plug-in just like you can get 20 or so out of a Prius Prime – if you do everything right and you live in 70 degree weather. Just don’t turn on the heat/AC, radio, windshield wipers, try to accelerate too fast or – get this – try to regen too much electricity going down a hill. All of these things turn the ICE engine on and keep it on for 5-10 minutes regardless of how much battery you have and what roads you are on.
The overarching problem with Toyota’s Prius EV designs – both the Plug-in and the Prime – is that it is a retrofit of the hybrid Prius design with a slightly bigger battery/motor and not much else. A hack.
In the Plug-in, you can’t turn on a heater or do much of anything on electricity alone. The intelligence of the ICE/EV system, if you can call it that, is sub par and more importantly there is no way to force the ICE engine to stay off while you are driving on battery. The Chevy Volt, as we found out in our review, won’t kick into ICE unless the battery runs dry.
In fact the ICE engine/battery combo on my Prius Plug-in often somehow got worse gas mileage than my regular Prius. So plugging it in was a waste of time and (literally) energy.
While the new Prime does have its own electric heater, you can’t use the de-froster (!!) without the engine immediately turning on, which is something many people use in the cold mornings.
In my driving on the hilly backroads around my home in February, I was not once able to keep the Prime’s ICE engine from turning on doing normal things over a week+ period. Here’s one of many videos I took of the ICE kicking in for no reason at all:
Toyota initially said that I must have gotten a bad car so instead of waiting on a non-existent replacement, I went to my local Toyota dealer and tried the white base model of the Prius Prime. Again, with a salesman in the car, the ICE engine turned on at various times during the test drive while I had an almost full battery. It even turned on going down a hill with the heat off.
Toyota seemed surprised by my findings, even assigning me people who would theoretically get back to me. I’m still waiting for an answer a few weeks later, but my feeling is that the US media relations department might have gotten the wrong translation from Japan on how the Prime works. I kept getting referred to the initial reviews of the Prius Prime which took place in sunny Southern California and didn’t have the ICE cut in. I then showed videos of the ICE turning on during my testing and it has been radio silence for over a week since then.
So we’ll leave the big issue there. Like I said earlier, the Prime is a big improvement over the Prius Plug-in in almost every way. I say ‘almost’ because the 5 seat Plug-in became a 4 seat Prime and I’m not in love with the exterior design. Hearing jokes like “watch out, the cops are going to pull you over for driving a totaled car” confirm I’m not alone (and the Prime design is a muted, longer version of the regular 2017 Prius). That said, the original Prius design was controversial and has now become iconic so there’s hope in Toyotaland that this will catch on.
The EV battery and engine are bigger, allowing you to get to 84mph before the ICE engine automatically kicks in if it hasn’t already. Acceleration on EV-only is bad but somehow still significantly better than the Plug-in.
That bigger battery is located in the rear of the car basically on the floor of the hatchback area. This shows the difference between something engineered and something hacked on. The weight of this battery makes it such that 5 people can no longer ride in the Prime, the middle seat was taken out of the rear of the car. Rather than re-engineer the car to handle the additional weight, Toyota just removed a very necessary seat. Also, that battery is placed relatively high up which isn’t optimal for low center of gravity handling.
The battery is big and takes up a lot of room but there’s still space for a few groceries:
The flimsy hatchback cover is pretty much just fabric and bends with the weight of toilet paper.
The interior is totally redesigned and a big improvement. My review vehicle had a big vertical 11.6-inch display but the base model I later tried didn’t. The infotainment was passable and an improvement over the Prius Plug-in. Either of these would have been improved with the addition of CarPlay and Android Auto which, like a real EV, Toyota doesn’t think people want.
The actual usability and features of the display weren’t terribly intuitive but, in what is becoming a theme, were better than the previous Plug-in model.
The 8.8kWh total battery that is sitting in your trunk like luggage can be charged in as little as 2 hours with a 240V charger. I can confirm this as well as the 5+ hours a 110V charger takes. Theoretically, a Prime owner could live the dream driving 20 miles to work, charge up on a standard 110V and be ready for another 20 miles home without using a drop of gas…if the ICE engine didn’t pop on every few minutes for no reason.
The charging port, above, couldn’t be more clumsy. Not only do you have to open a big charge bay door every charge, there is a plastic charge port cover that is attached to a flimsy string. In the snow, this becomes a mess, below.
That’s the basic theme here. The Prius is a damn fine automobile with a noble heritage and the 2017 redesign is going to be popular even if it looks like you just rolled it over a few times. However, the patch job that Toyota did to make this Prime version an ‘EV’ isn’t worthy of your pocketbook. If you are looking for a similar plug-in petrol/EV hybrid, I’d check out the Chevy Volt, Hyundai Ioniq, BMW i3 w/REX or similar options.