Pity the poor
Toyota brought the ugly-duckling hybrid to market in 2000, and with a combination of smart technology and savvy marketing, made it a must-have vehicle for Southern Californians.
It soon became the world's best-selling hybrid. Four years ago, it became the best-selling car in California — essential for anyone who wanted good gas mileage, good-guy green credibility and access to the HOV carpool lanes.
That was then. Now, all these years later, the Japanese trailblazer is playing catch-up, trying to compete with a host of hybrids that are beating Prius at its own game.
Battery technology has brought Teslas, Leafs and Bolt EVs to the forefront of green technology. Engine technology has given competing Japanese, Korean and American sedans equivalent gas mileage.
And almost two dozen other vehicles sold in 2016 qualified for carpool lane stickers, which recent Priuses do not.
Sales have fallen. Toyota sold 221,080 Priuses in the U.S. in 2012. But that number dropped in every subsequent year, declining to 173,334 in 2015. Barely more than 100,000 will be sold this year.
So Toyota is putting new life into the Prius line with Prime, a trio of 2017 plug-in hybrids that bring extended battery-electric range to the brand without sacrificing much performance or cargo space and without reducing its stellar gasoline engine mileage.
They'll also qualify for a California green carpool sticker.
The new plug-ins, built around an 8.8 kW lithium ion battery that has twice as many cells as any previous Prius plug-in (the Plug-in Hybrid, which Toyota discontinued in 2015), can go 25 miles in electric mode before the gasoline engine takes over. (The new battery and other components add more than 300 pounds to the weight of the vehicle.) That gives the Prime 124 miles per gallon in EV equivalence, but the car still gets a combined 54 miles per gallon in gasoline mode and has a total range of 640 miles.
Boldly, Toyota is introducing the Prime in only three trim levels, at three price points. There are no options. You get a Prime Plus, a Prime Premium or a Prime Advanced, and that's it. No adding the special Advanced wheels to the Plus package.
They're priced aggressively. The Plus starts at $27,965, the Premium at $29,665 and the Advanced at $33,965. (For comparison, the lowest base model of the entry-level Prius Two is priced from $25,850.)
Those numbers do not reflect federal and state tax credits or rebates, which in some localities could total $6,500. The Prime line will be sold in all 50 U.S. states.
On the road, the Prime feels like nothing so much as … a Prius. It looks like one, and drives like one and has many of its familiar attributes.
In EV mode, it's almost silent, but for a slight transmission whir. Like the Toyota Mirai, it lacks the torquey punch that EV owners love, and its passing power isn't going to impress anyone.
Spinning a new Prime Premium up and down the hills around Ojai last week, braving the 105-degree-plus temperatures, I even tested the acceleration with the AC off. No dice. The Prime may be able to travel at 85 mph in all-electric mode, but you'll have to allow plenty of time for it to get up to that speed.
It's ergonomically sound, easy to operate and comfortable, and has the deeply sloped dashboard and the same visibility limits as its Prius predecessors. But it has a good solid Toyota feel. The fit and finish are high. The new colors — Blizzard Pearl and Hypersonic Red, among them — are appealing.
Interior features include a new 11.6-inch touch screen information and navigation screen, on the Premium and Advanced models. (The Plus comes with a 4.2-inch screen.) The Advanced trim line also includes a variety of phone-based apps that will make it possible for the owner to set charge times, start the vehicle in EV mode remotely and initiate interior climate control settings before getting into the car.
All versions will come with the Toyota Safety Sense package, which comprises a pre-collision warning and braking system, pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and more. They all also will include tire pressure monitoring, hill-start control and a tire repair kit in place of a spare tire (that's something else the battery takes away). To soften that, Toyota will throw in three years of free roadside assistance.
Making a virtue of necessity, Toyota engineers say they hit the sweet spot with a battery big enough to increase the Prius' all-electric range to 25 miles, but not so big that its heft negatively affects the overall great gas mileage.
They call this "a balance of efficiency."
In fact, Toyota made the battery as big as it could possibly be, using the existing Prius liftback platform. (The Prime uses the same dual-motor technology that drives the liftback, too.)
Although the company notes that 25 miles will cover most Americans' drive to work, and many Americans' drive to work and back home, it may be too short to appeal to Chevy Volt owners accustomed to twice that.
Charge times will be about 5.5 hours on a standard 110-volt plug, the kind that is standard in all homes and garages. It will be just over two hours at 240 volts, on a home-based or public fast charger. (Toyota will throw in a $100 gift card to use at ChargePoint charging stations.)
The Primes will take some knocks, and lose some customers, because making space for the new battery while maintaining head room and leg room in the front and back seats meant building a four-seater. A center console separates the two back seats where a fifth seat might go.
That's down one seat from the current Prius line and the same seating chart Toyota is using on its new hydrogen fuel cell Mirai. The Primes have 19.8 cubic feet of cargo volume, Toyota says, which is a little smaller than the 24.6 cubic feet available on the current Prius.
They also may take some heat for making the Primes non-compatible with Apple CarPlay.
Toyota will continue selling the non-Prime, or even sub-Prime, non-plug-in hybrid Priuses. For 2017, the company will offer the Prius Two, Three and Four, in various trim lines.
Toyota will launch the Prime line in November, and hopes to sell 20,000 units this year, company executives said.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime
Times' take: Toyota puts a longer-range plug-in into a crowded EV market
Highs: A great hybrid just got better
Lows: Only 25 all-EV miles per charge
Vehicle type: Four-door, four-seat, plug-in hybrid sedan
Base price: $27,965
Price as tested: $29,665
Powertrain: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine paired with electric motor
Transmission: ECVT automatic
Torque: 105 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 55 miles per gallon city / 53 mpg highway / 54 mpg combined; 124 MPGe in EV mode