Did Mozart ever write a clunker? Did Jerry Rice ever drop a pass? Of course they did and, by the way, Mozart was absolute crap on crossing routes.
Likewise, Toyota has a glorious history of car design in which the Prius Prime ($34,189, as tested) plays no part. This plug-in version of the beloved Prius hybrid has a
-sized battery tucked in its bum, which allows it to move on electrons alone for up to 25 miles before it must summon the chthonic forces of its 1.8-liter, 95-hp inline four.
That makes the Prius Prime a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV, like the Chevrolet Volt, except that the Toyota isn’t a patch on the Chevy. Let me count the ways: The Prime has only four seats to the Volt’s five; the Volt is peppy and fun to drive, while the Prime feels like it’s towing Noah’s Ark; and, critically, the Prime’s all-electric range is less than half that of the Volt—my observed average was closer to 16 miles.
Toyota took a halfhearted swing at PHEV with its previous generation Prius, using a barely-there 4.4 kWh battery providing an official range of 11 miles. The 2017 Prius Prime, with a new name to go with its bad-acid styling, roughly doubles those capacities, and yet it’s nowhere near enough. From its torpid performance to its fretful user experience—watching your EV range evaporate like spilled ether anytime you touch the accelerator—the Prime seems to be less an endorsement of PHEV than a repudiation.
What follows represents a change of heart: Being an advocate for vehicle electrification, I have regarded PHEV to be practical transitional technology in the next decade. After all, a large majority of car owners in the U.S. drive fewer than 30 miles a day. A PHEV allows them to drive some or all of their commutes on electric power; should the day take them further, the gas-powered engine can take over. No range anxiety.
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But the best use of these machines depends on the human equation. With the Prime that meant faithful, once or even twice-daily charging at my Level 2 home charger (about 2 hours at 240V) in order to keep it in its electric happy place. Sure, within this brief, blessed window, the Prime is extremely efficient, with an EPA-rated fuel economy of 133 mpg-e (gas and electric equivalent). But beyond these easily exceeded limits, it reverts to just another Prius, albeit one lugging around 300 pounds of dead weight.
Five years ago, I regarded the frequent charging required by PHEVs to be a reasonable expectation of consumer behavior. But after testing a dozen plug-in-capable cars I realize how easy it is to fall behind on charging and how bothersome it can be. In my experience the threshold of aggravation is around 40 miles of EV range. In cars with less EV range—like that BMW i8—I experience a microcosmic version of range anxiety.
Moreover, this complicated technology—requiring not one but two power sources on board, gas and electric, with all the cost and maintenance of both—seems destined to be pushed aside by long-range battery-electric vehicles.
Consider the case of Chevrolet’s Volt and Bolt: The former, a beautifully engineered PHEV sedan with real-car performance and a practical EV range of 53 miles, has sustained respectable sales since 2011, despite historically low gas prices. But as soon as the all-electric Chevy Bolt (238 miles range) hit showrooms in 2017, it started devouring Volt sales. In November Bolt outsold Volt nearly 2-to-1.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime Advanced
Base Price $27,995
Price, as Tested $34,189
Powertrain Gas-electric hybrid system: naturally aspirated 1.8-liter DOHC inline four cylinder with variable valve control and automatic stop/start; front wheel drive; continuously variable transmission
System Net Power 121 hp
Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase 182.9/69.3/57.9/106.3 inches
Curb Weight 3,375
0-60 mph 10.2 seconds
EPA Fuel Economy 133 mpg-e
EV Mode Range 25 miles
Cargo Capacity 19.8 cubic feet
The Chevy case should worry carmakers counting on PHEVs to ease or delay their transition to electrification. If consumers have a better option, they will take it.
The Prime’s problem is fundamentally one of packaging, which is a pretty way to say the battery is too small to do any good. The Prime, like its siblings, is built on Toyota’s New Generation Vehicle Architecture rather than a dedicated platform. This cost-saving decision constrained the space and configuration available to the batteries. As it is, the Prime’s lithium-ion pack consumes nearly 5 more cubic feet of cargo space than a standard Prius, as well as the rear-center seat position.
In a 3,375-pound car (300 pounds more than standard Prius) that juice doesn’t take you very far or very fast. In EV mode the Prime accelerates to 60 mph in a shockingly deliberate 12 seconds. In hybrid mode (121 hp system net), it’s a bit quicker—10.2 seconds. These full-throttle exertions fill the cabin with the keening of engine, motors, transmission and power electrics, a chamber orchestra of mechanical lament. Oof. That will lighten your foot.
But you’re probably wondering about the styling. Yeah. One hemisphere of my brain celebrates the rationalism of the Prius form. The car’s low snout, high scuttle, raked windscreen and roof peak directly over the front seats are all beautiful in the eyes of the wind tunnel. Following the laminar flow across the roof, we encounter the Prius Prime’s signal flourish: the contoured glass in the hatch flaring to meet the curved wing of the deck-lid spoiler/tail-light assembly, encrusted with ruby LED’s. It all contributes to the Prius Prime’s excellent 0.25 coefficient of drag.
The other side of my brain can’t believe what I’m thinking. What a scow. The Prime looks like erotic disappointment in gel-cap form.
‘The Prime’s problem is fundamentally one of packaging, which is a pretty way to say the battery is too small to do any good.’
To its credit, Toyota never really wanted to build a plug-in Prius. This story goes back to 2003 and the release of its second-generation Prius, the hybrid that changed the world. It was so good, the hybrid mechanism so robust, that EV enthusiasts wondered why it couldn’t have a bigger battery? That way the car could provide limited all-electric range and only then, if necessary, turn on the gas.
Ron Gremban, of the advocacy group CalCars, built the first proof-of-concept Prius PHEV conversion in 2004 using technology from EnergyCS in Monrovia, Ca.
Toyota’s engineers (and lawyers) weren’t amused by people hacking the Prius, I recall, and were dismissive of PHEV technology. The company argued that the return on investment wasn’t there, given the added cost, complication and weight, all to eke out a few miles of EV range that would never pay for itself. The Prius was already remarkably efficient.
The Prime only proves how right they were.