With 10 months having passed since its U.S. release, Toyota’s Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is proving clearly more popular than the 2012-2015 Prius Plug-in Hybrid it replaced.

Called the “Prime” because it’s the range topper, the part-time EV derived from the hybrid Prius Liftback delivers 25 miles of all-electric driving range, a superlative 54 mpg, and its sales are threatening the perennially leading Chevy Volt.

Last month the Prime again beat the Volt by a few hundred sales, and trails it by just 292 sales this year. At its present rate, the Prime could be the first PHEV to relegate the Volt to second-best-selling PHEV for the year since that model inaugurated the major-manufacturer plug-in era in December 2010.

To balance this picture, it should be noted talk of a sales race among PHEVs is like discussing box scores for the local little league team. It’s fun to keep track, does speak to potential, but with around 1 percent of the market, plug-ins sell far below the mainstream.

In the Prius Prime’s case however, considering its Liftback sibling has been a “mainstream” seller with as many as 140,000 sales during stronger years this decade, one might wonder why the Prime is not doing even better than it is.

Priced from $28,000, the Prime is eligible for a $4,500 federal tax credit, and state incentives where available and can seem like a no-brainer next to the Prius-sans-plug. How so? For one, the EPA rates the Prime 2 mpg better than all but the Prius Liftback Eco 2 trim, and its net price can come in couple-few thousand below comparable Prius Liftback trims assuming government kickbacks.

“‘Prime'” means best or top,” said Toyota when the Prius Prime was introduced. So what did it do? It positioned it so it could be had for fewer dollars than the less-than “best” Liftback. Go figure.

Carbon fiber reinforced plastic molded with weave pattern helps save weight. And adds bling factor for the most technologically “advanced” Prius.

True, its ability to travel gas free for just 25 miles pales next to the 53-mile Volt which nets for $3,000 more assuming a larger $7,500 federal credit, but 25 miles is enough for half of all drivers’ daily needs.

Couple that with the super duper fuel economy, Toyota’s reputation for quality and resale value – and the consensus among armchair automotive beauty contest judges that it looks better than the Liftback – and what’s not to like? Why isn’t everyone buying this and not the regular Prius?

One reason is it’s new, another is there are other competitive choices, and so like every plug-in in the yet-limited market, it is not a complete slam dunk. Instead, the Prime is a balance of pros and cons, and so, let’s take a closer look.

Answers Objections

The original Prius PHV was introduced five years ago after Toyota had resisted the idea of a plug-in with li-ion battery. It finally built the 2012 plug-in Prius (which was hardly distinguishable from the Liftback) after private tinkerers had taken to modifying their Prii to plug in – in cases with li-ion batteries replacing the NiMh unit Toyota also resisted moving away from.

After Chevrolet’s Volt, and more handwriting on the wall, reluctant Toyota brought in the plug-in hybrid version with the mid-cycle refresh of the third-generation Liftback which had been developed for 2009 in Japan, and 2010 in the U.S. It was priced between $32,000 and $40,285 and eligible for only a $2,500 federal tax credit along with available state incentives.

The factory built plug-in won loyal customers in no small part by resting on the its parent’s laurels, but underwhelmed others with the smallest li-ion battery available among plug-in hybrids – just 4.4 kWh. Granted it was triple the size of the non-plug-in Liftback’s battery, but half the size of competitors’ and about a quarter the size of what came in the Chevy Volt. With 95 MPGe, it was only good for roughly 11 miles at up to 62 mph in EV mode and unlike the Volt, the “blended” PHEV could disappointingly kick the gas engine on when greater acceleration was needed – annoying for people wanting pure EV benefits.

Meanwhile, even some plug-in advocates groused, calling it a tepid effort that barely deserved a solo-occupancy HOV lane sticker in California. This was the market for which the car sold in only 15 CA-ZEV states had been custom tailored, and where some Californians who bought it did so just to escape thicker traffic and might not even bother plugging in and preventing the few extra emissions it could save.

Enter the 50-state Prime priced lower and eligible for a bigger tax credit: It has 8.8 kWh and makes much better use of the still-modest-sized battery with electrical efficiency better than anything from Tesla, GM, and even BMW. Its 133 MPGe let it beat Toyota’s initial range estimate of 22 miles with the 25 mile EPA rating.

Forty percent thermal efficiency is superb. So is 133 MPGe. The air-cooled 8.8-kWh battery can be charged with the supplied cord in five-and-a-half hours. A 240-Volt EVSE cuts it to two hours and is handy for intra-day charging if bouncing from the home base. Otherwise 5.5 hours is quick enough for overnight charging.

Matching this boasting point is the new Prius’ equally impressive gas-electric hybrid system based on an Atkinson cycle 1.8-liter engine with a stratospheric 40-percent thermal efficiency.

Output for the entire gas-electric system is 121 horsepower (90kW) with no torque number provided. The engine alone is rated 95 horsepower @ 5,200 rpm (71kW @ 5200 rpm) and 105 pounds-feet @ 3,600 rpm (142 Nm @ 3,600 rpm).

The Prime’s powertrain differs from the donor Liftback however with dual motor drive in EV mode using both motor generator one and two by way of a one-way clutch. This permits the desired all-electric experience that keeps the gas off under full acceleration. At last it could do close to what the Volt could by keeping gas-free EV drive up to 84 mph assuming charged battery, albeit at a slower pace.

Acceleration is about the same as the 2009-2015 Prius despite improved fuel economy, or 0-60 in a bit over 10 seconds, give or take, depending on conditions. In pure EV mode, add a couple seconds because the gas engine can’t help. This is still not bad compared to PHEVs like the Ford C-MAX and Fusion Energis which glacially muster themselves to 60 in pure EV drive in more than 15 seconds. The Chevy Volt remains the best in this arena with minimal difference between pure EV and gas operation in the eight-second range.


The Prime’s looks are basically a trim package to distinguish it from the Liftback. Full disclosure: yes, the Prime has been called more handsome, but the Liftback has received more than the usual harsh criticism for its angular evolutionary lines.

We think the commotion and histrionics have been a bit much, and the car has a good look from most angles. However, for whom it may concern, exterior styling is a big factor for those wanting to be seen driving cars projecting an image that makes them feel better than what Toyota’s latest Japanese techno-mod Prius can provide.

The Prius now rides on the modular Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) chassis built with more stiff hot-stamped and high tensile steels permitting intricate lightweight and strong forms throughout the body. The result is a better car, and they contribute to improved handling and steering responsiveness.

The Prime does otherwise offer in the eyes of many an aesthetic advantage over the regular hybrid Prius, as Toyota has imbued a more premium air – outside, as well as in.

Distinguishing it first – while chassis and 106.3-inch wheelbase are the same – is a body 4.2 inches longer than the Liftback, and the same width. It’s also 6.5 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower than the former Prius PHV.

Further setting it apart from the Liftback are different front and rear fascias, bumpers and lighting. In front are very low profile but effective LED headlights and a large acrylic grille supposed to evoke a “more advanced EV image.” (If this were the 50s, perhaps it would have gotten bigger tailfins and sold as looking like a faster airplane?)

Also not lost in the sculpted corporate statement are design elements borrowed from the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Toyota still insists hydrogen is the technology with ultimate long-term potential for society’s needs, so Mirai design language is a compliment in the company’s eyes.

Adding to the slight cosmetic changes to differentiate the plug-in Prime is a “dual wave” rear window and full-width LED rear lamp panel.

Inside, changes are also evident, but it is here one backwards step was taken to copy the old Chevy Volt in a way no one wishes Toyota had done: It deleted the middle rear seat, making it a four seater.

The midsized non-plug-in Prius Liftback is a suitable-capacity five-seater, and the old compact Volt was hated upon by GM bashers, and curmudgeons everywhere for occupying the middle rear seat with the humongous battery occupying the middle of the car front and back.

Within the safety optimized structure the Prime includes eight airbags: driver and front- passenger seat mounted side; front and rear side curtain; driver’s knee, and front passenger seat cushion. Standard also is Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P). This suite includes Pre-Collision with Pedestrian Detection and Automatic Braking; Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist; Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with full stop technology and Automatic High Beams. The Prime Advanced includes Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.

Toyota says it put an armrest with cupholders in the middle rear spot to reduce its load holding capacity and save on engineering. There’s been talk a five-passenger version would be introduced due to demand, but this is not official at this stage.

Otherwise the Prime is pretty cool.

Grabbing your attention first in the upper two trims is a generous 11.6-inch vertically oriented tablet like infotainment master control.

The touch screen integrates many functions to complement other buttons and knobs in an altogether functional cockpit.

Heated and cooled seats in our top Advanced trim are nice also, and meaningful also is legroom for most average and above size people is good.

One odd feature not often discussed is Toyota’s headrests are canted too far forward, and cannot be adjusted back. If you really want to press the contour of your torso against the convex seatback and headrest, the Japanese car bends you into a C. Yes, there is adjustable lumbar, but we’d be looking to carve material from the headrest uncomfortably cocking the neck forward as though pre-loaded for a frontal impact.

See the forward canted headrest and cupped back on the driver’s seat?

Was this for better crash test results? With the headrest already pushing you forward, we could see how a nine out of 10 crash dummies would thank you for preventing neck injuries. Meanwhile other dummies may find themselves wishing for relief for the neck in seats that were not co-developed by ergonomic engineers from the Better Back Store.

Other tradeoffs include the rear cargo area, which is cut 28 percent for the maximum possible size of the largest capacity Prius Liftbacks, or 19.8 cubic feet.

A bicycle with front wheel removed can still be stuffed in OK, as can a good supply of luggage or boxes from Best Buy where you conspicuously park your high-tech computer-controlled car and go in and buy more stuff.

About That Drive Experience

Toyota worked to imbue a higher fun-to-drive quotient than any Prius before it, while outdoing its fuel economy and giving it a modest EV drive capability as well.

Not often reported is the EPA’s standards have gotten a bit tougher over the years to attempt to match “real world” mpg with the window sticker, and if the Prime had been tested a few years ago, it might have been rated above 54 mpg, and 25 miles EV range.

As it is, the proof is indeed what the odometer really says, and the car can certainly meet or exceed 25 miles on battery alone. We had no trouble in mixed driving going 27 miles, and with a bit more care could hit 30 or more. Same goes for fuel economy, which can meet or exceed EPA estimates, though you must learn the best way to drive a hybrid to get the most from it. Also, in cold weather, the EPA does say fuel economy is more affected in hybrids than conventional cars, so be advised.

But what about all the fun? Well, first we picked a drag race with a Nissan GT-R and won! Then we mixed it up on our favorite twisty road with a Corvette C7 and showed it the fast way home. Then we woke up and realized we were only dreaming.

Actual fact: It’s still a Prius, but has a much more stable chassis and the rear double wishbone suspension adds a measure of control as well. If acceleration is still in your definition of a fun car, this will disappoint, as a Volt is a good couple seconds quicker to 60, and even quicker from 0-30. A Camry Hybrid good for 50 mpg is quicker still, and might hit into the 7-8 second range for 0-60.

What the Prius does excellently however is balance all those balls in the air it is juggling: efficiency on gas, efficiency on electricity, poise around corners even with low rolling resistance tires, effectiveness as a driving tool everywhere, and with 640 miles range.

Its 0.25 coefficient of drag and noise dampening mean a fairly quiet ride, with sight lines all good. The pedal does not feel wooden with its regenerative braking, and comfort is fine – with some points knocked off for the seat that bends you into a C.

The infotainment is also impressive, with the available 11.6-inch screen providing a great experience, if not that of the 15 incher on a Tesla Model 3.

A Good Choice?

The Prius is the best it’s ever been, but the market is expanding fast, and the regular hybrid Liftback is actually having its worst year this decade.

Toyota says it positioned the Prius line at a more mainstream audience meaning it tacitly acknowledges it’s no longer the ultimate in emissions savings when pure EVs are on the rise.

That said, in markets with coal-intensive energy grids, it can still be net greener than even the Chevy Volt when factoring upstream emissions, so despite the decrease on the hoopla scale, the Prius is very effective, and the Prime even more so.

Available in three trims, the Prime Plus including $895 destination fee is $27,995, the Prime Premium is $29,695, and the Prime Advanced is $33,995.

Of all competitors, Hyundai’s pending Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid which attacks the Prime directly – mpg, miles range, price, style, thermal efficiency of engine, and more – is the nearest alternative. That’s not yet available.

Other apple-to-orange choices should contemplate all variables including available incentives, expected costs of insurance, fuel, maintenance, repair, and depreciation.

As the highest expression of a model now in its 20th year since its Japanese introduction, the Prime version of the Prius is tough to beat given its pricing and all else.

Don’t be surprised to see it come close to or beat the Volt in sales this year, and while it and all others could pale when Tesla actually gets the Model 3 assembly line moving from its present crawl, the Prime is a proven and solid proposition.