Whatta Deal! Toyota's Prius Prime Is a Green Bargain

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 20, 2017

LONG ISLAND CITY—I don’t usually open stories with math, since I barely passed it in high school, but this is interesting. The 2017 Prius Prime (a new name for the plug-in hybrid version, and already on sale) starts at $27,100, but you get a $4,500 federal tax credit, bringing it down to $22,600.

The Prius Prime: a whole lotta car for the moolah. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On top of that, there are state incentives for plug-in hybrids. In California, for instance, you can claim $1,500 more (bringing the bottom line to $21,100). On top of that, it’s got the golden ticket—access to the state’s HOV lanes. Plenty of Californians buy EVs for just that reason.

The Prime's rear hatch is lightweight and carbon fiber-reinforced. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Now the entry-level Prius Two starts at $24,685, but you’re getting a relatively stripped car. Prius Primes are well-equipped, and in the two higher trims you get an ultra-cool, Tesla-like 11.6-inch touchscreen—not available in Prius Liftbacks. Given all this, consumers really, really should consider the Prime if they’re shopping for a Prius—it’s cheaper, more upscale, and offers electric-only cruising, not to mention a beefier electric motor so you spend more time in EV mode.

Now let’s get to the Prime’s other virtues. The new Prius isn’t a looker, but the Prime is an improvement over the liftbacks with a cute and unique tail treatment  (featuring a carbon-fiber-reinforced rear hatch).

This big, 11.6-inch touchscreen, chasing Tesla, comes in higher trims of the Prime. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Toyota training specialist Sean Cina took a group of us through the Prime’s attributes. It has 25 miles of EV-only range, more than double the previous plug-in’s 11. The cabin heater is a heat pump, and that helps extend battery range.  Add to that 615 miles from the 1.8-liter four (combined with an electronically controlled CVT transmission), and you get a really excellent 640 miles of range. That’s equivalent to the diesels nobody wants anymore.  

Owners of early Prius Plug-Ins complain that the gas motor kicks in too often, but Cina says that the new one can cruise at speeds up to 84 mph without that happening. In gas mode, it gets 55 mpg in the city, 53 on the highway, and 54 combined. In electric mode, it reports 133 MPGe.  

The lithium-ion battery is 8.8 kilowatt-hours. Drive modes include electric-only EV, HV (which combines the gas and electric motors as needed) and EV Auto (which chooses between electric and gas, depending on conditions). Charging takes 5.5 hours from a household 110 outlet, and two hours and 10 minutes from Level Two 220-volts. There are 15 settings to schedule charging, for instance after midnight if that offers lower rates. The climate control can also cut in 10 minutes before your butt is in the seat. Owners get $100 worth (or 100 days) of free charging from ChargePoint.

Via the Entune system, owners can tap into smart phone apps that find the car, look up charging stations, manage remote charging, and control climate settings. A safety suite is standard, including pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection and lane departure. Auto high beams is a feature I love.

I dunno, this seems like a lot of car for the money. So much so that I’d consider plumping down $33,300 for the Advanced model because it’s so loaded. There aren’t even any options on any Prime (though dealers have a range of accessories). With the Advanced you get every conceivable feature, including that touchscreen, the apps, a JBL stereo with 10 speakers, and safety stuff that includes Intelligent Clearance Sonar with parking assist and blind-spot monitoring.

The Range Rover I tested is a supremely comfortable highway cruiser--with a $104,000 bottom line. (Jim Motavalli photo)

All that for $27,300 in California, where quite a few of these cars will be sold. Cina expects the take rate for the Prime will be around 20,000 to 22,000 for 2017, compared to 75,000 Liftbacks. If that’s the case, then Americans just aren’t getting the word on the deal offered with the plug-in hybrid option. The bottom line is that Toyota needs to move the green cars because of both federal CAFE and California zero emission targets, and the consumer is the beneficiary. Act quickly, though, because we don’t know how much longer the federal tax credit will be in place.

I drove to the Toyota event in a 2016 Range Rover Supercharged. Now, this is a supremely comfortable car for a long winter drive. The seats are heated, and so is the steering wheel. I was massaged all the way to Long Island City. I appreciate that when you use the navigation system it gives you the choice between "on road" and "off road" directions. But the Range Rover--very, very popular where I grew up in Connecticut--is $104,190 as equipped and gets just 16 mpg combined. You could buy three Primes and have change left over.

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