Monday, November 18, 2019

Costs Less Than Rivals; Falls Short On Electric Driving Range

For years, Toyota has danced around electricity, perhaps fearful it would get schocked. But last year the company got back in the electric game (barely) with the Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) based on the 2016 Prius Liftback. Plug-in hybrids are a strange lot that are beginning to be noticed. They attract buyers who want a longer distance of all-electric driving, but aren’t ready to jump to a full electric vehicle.

With a fully charged battery the Prime can travel 25 miles of electric-only driving before seamlessly switching to the hybrid drivetrain, and combined, the Prime can travel 640 miles without charging the battery or filling the gas tank.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

Short range, but great efficiency and low cost

The Prius Prime has an EPA estimated miles-per-gallon equivalent (MPGe) of 133. MPGe is the government’s rating to try to help consumers understand how much energy an electric or hybrid car is using in combined city/highway driving. Also, the Prime achieves 54 mpg in combined driving when operating as a normal hybrid.

The 2018 Prius Prime comes in three flavors with no changes from 2017: Plus, Premium, and Advanced. The Plus carries an MSRP of $28,220 including destination charges; the Premium comes in at $29,220; and the top-tier Prime Advanced is $34,220. Prices are before an available federal tax credit of $4,500 and any potential state incentives.

New Hybrid Powertrain

The Prime is the first Prius to use a dual-motor drivetrain. It adds a one-way clutch to Motor-Generator 1 (MG1) so that both electric motors now help drive the wheels. Previously, the MG1 just started the gasoline engine and took care of regenerative braking. Now, when operating as an EV, there are two electric motors powering the wheels, which increases electric driving range and improves performance.

Lift the hood and you’ll find that the Prime packs the same engine as the Prius liftback: a very efficient 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four making 95 horsepower. Combined with the electric motors, the hybrid system’s net output is 121 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 105 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. That’s good for a 0-to-60 mph run of a little less than 11 seconds—quick enough to merge onto a fast moving freeways with just a little sweat.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

The engine’s borrowed from the standard Prius

There are 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.

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 of the three.

The 8.8 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack located in the trunk area is double the size of the previous Prius plug-in model, and the pack now has a warming system. When plugged in the battery will warm up so the vehicle can start in full EV mode even when it is freezing outside. A charge takes about two hours at 240 volts, or less than five hours at 120 volts.

As with many other plug-ins, the Prius Prime allows you to reserve your EV charge for later—for example, drive in hybrid mode for a highway speed journey and then switch to EV mode for in-city travel.

Prius Prime Has Different Styling

Although the 2018 Toyota Prius Prime is essentially a regular Prius Liftback that plugs in, it presents styling that is different and easily noticed. Up front, the 2018 Prime borrows from the Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle with bigger air intakes, and has a front grille that is blacked out in the center with LED foglight strips that are much longer than the ones found on the standard Prius.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

Styling for the Prime is distinctive

Out back, the Prime’s taillights stretch across the top of the rear end and encircle the lower glass to form two C-shaped patterns. Additionally, the Prius Prime also has LED light clusters in the lower rear fascia that look like rear-mounted fog lights.

Inside the cabin is where another key difference between the standard Prius and Prius Prime is found — the Prime is a four seater thanks to the larger battery. Having only four seats was a major objection when Chevy’s Volt was introduced, but there’s been little said about the Prime missing a rear seat position.

The traditional top-of-dash mounted gauges are there so Prius fans won’t get confused by traditional gauge placement behind the steering wheel. But the kingpin of the cabin’s design and tech features is the large infotainment screen. The Plus base model comes with a 7.0-inch touch screen, while all other Prius Prime trims feature an 11.6-inch screen in the center of the dash.

As futuristic as the Prius Prime’s exterior styling is, apparently Toyota thinks it looks high-tech enough to have high-gloss plastic trim like an old Apple iPod along with white upholstery. My take is the white version will easily get dirty and stained, and not only that, the materials are not very rich looking.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

The Prime gives this member of the Prius family its own identity

Note to families with young children: don’t buy a Prius Prime with a white interior.

Compared to the regular , the Prime comes up short when it comes to cargo space. The rechargeable battery pack’s location not only removes several cubic feet of space but also the spare tire, reducing cargo space to 19.8 cubic space. There’s still enough room for a grocery trip, and folding the rear seats opens up enough space to haul a small desk or bedside table.

Aside from a few accessories, there are no options for the Prius Prime. If you want more features, you buy more Prime.

Neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto are offered, and if your passengers are a crew of techies, they’ll have to take turns using the USB port because there’s only one, even in upper-level models.

Driving the 2018 Prius Prime Plus

Driving the Prius Prime Plus, or any other plug-in or regular hybrid, changes the way I drive, as I can’t help getting sucked into chasing mpg. Speeding from point-to-point is out, replaced by going with the flow and embracing the slow lane. My pulling away with a feather-touch on the pedal means cars always drive in front of me in traffic. But I just let it go (sometimes begrudgingly), and accept I’ll reach my destination… a couple minutes after I would have, but pleased with the knowledge I didn’t burn gallons of fuel in the process.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

Enough Prius gadgets to keep you occupied

I kept a close eye on the Prime’s gauges and found I got exactly the 25 miles of electric only driving in EV mode. With the battery depleted, driving in town in hybrid mode it was easy to mosey about with electric power before the gas engine kicked in. Overall, my days with this new plug-in saw 247 miles on the trip odometer with an average of 61.2 mpg of mixed city and highway driving.

The Prius Prime Plus drove pretty much like a regular Prius, which is to say it is not a “fun” car behind the steering wheel. Once I got moving, the car pretty much felt like driving a comparably sized gas powered hatchback. Shuffling between power sources remained as seamless as always, but on occasion, stepping on the throttle would rev the engine and spin the CVT transmission without moving the car forward very much.

Tepid best describes the Prime’s acceleration, but in around-town driving the car was fairly responsive. Engine noise is well-suppressed, but at cruising speed wind noise was prominent and the hard tires designed for maximum fuel efficiency create excessive road noise.

The suspension struggled with the added weight of the larger battery pack, exhibited by exaggerated motions over rises and crests. And I’m sorry Toyota, the double wishbone suspension may be “found on the best sports sedans,” but the Prius Prime is not agile.

In The Marketplace

The 2018 Toyota Prius Prime is not without competitors, starting with its most direct rival, the . The Volt is a spunky plug-in hybrid with more off-the-line power and twice the electric range of the Prius Prime. Prime’s base model is nearly six grand less than the Volt, while the top level Advance trim is $4,000 less than the Volt’s top trim.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime

Plugging takes these sedans further

Ford’s plug-in offering has more driving feel than the Prius Prime, but the all-electric driving range falls behind with 19 miles, however, their base price gives the Ford a slight edge. Hyundai’s offers 27 miles of EV driving range and does so with a standard transmission that gives the car a more natural driving feel, but the base model is also $6,000 more than the Prime.

If you simply must have a , the Clarity plug-in hybrid version offers a lengthy 47-mile electric driving range, but the base model will cost you $5,100 more that the base Prius Prime Plus.

If you’re a Toyota Prius devotee and want to move to a plug-in hybrid, you’ll likely buy a Prius Prime without comparison shopping.  If you’re open minded, as you’ve just read, there are several choices (and more below).

What you will find is the 2018 Toyota Prius Prime Plus is unquestionably a great value from a tech perspective, offering more standard features than plug-in rivals with a lower price. Plus, the Prime, in all of its iterations is a lot of eco-minded car for the money.

More PHEV Options

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Smarticd is loaned free test vehicles from automakers to evaluate, typically for a week at a time. Our road tests are based on this one-week drive of a new vehicle. Because of this we don’t address issues such as long-term reliability or total cost of ownership. In addition, we are often invited to manufacturer events highlighting new vehicles or technology. As part of these events we may be offered free transportation, lodging or meals. We do our best to present our unvarnished evaluations of vehicles and news irrespective of these inducements.

Our focus is on vehicles that offer the best fuel economy in their class, which leads us to emphasize electric cars, plug-in hybrids, hybrids and diesels. We also feature those efficient gas-powered vehicles that are among the top mpg vehicles in their class. In addition, we aim to offer reviews and news on advanced technology and the alternative fuel vehicle market. We welcome any feedback from vehicle owners and are dedicated to providing a forum for alternative viewpoints. Please let us know your views at [email protected].

Larry E. Hall is Managing Editor & Editor-at-Large at Smarticd. His interest and passion for automobiles began at age 7, cleaning engine parts for his father, a fleet manager for a regional bakery. He has written about cars and the automobile industry for more than 25 years and has focused his attention on “green” cars and advanced technology vehicles. Larry’s articles have been published by Microsoft’s and MSN Autos as their alternative vehicles correspondent and Senior Editor at He is the founding president of the Northwest Automotive Press Association and a member of the Motor Press Guild.

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