Last year we were overcome with an affinity for the hybrid version of the Toyota RAV4, which proved to be both faster and more affordable than its sharply styled SE-trimmed sibling. While we did prefer the latter’s stylish front fascia, sporty alloy wheels, and stiffer suspension, there was no denying the fact that the hybrid model was more powerful and well equipped than the more performance-focused variant.
Hybrids have gotten to the point where they are no longer slow, as advancements in electrical systems, batteries, and ECU tuning reward us with instantaneous power off the line and positive reinforcement at higher speeds. The tables have officially been turned, and brands like Toyota are here to ensure us that the technologies of the future grow stronger and smarter than with each passing generation.
But despite having one hell of a success story, and more torque than its all-motor alternatives, a lot of people still don’t dig the idea of owning a hybrid Toyota. Preconceived images of slow, expensive, sloppy, and unsightly sedans parading around southern California come to mind as performance fans and nonbelievers turn their noses up at the notion of owning something that’s part electric.
So we’ve decided it’s time to contest those dated misnomers, because Toyota recently gave us the chance to drive the all-new Prime version of wildly successful Prius. With 54 MPG estimates and a total driving range projected at 640 miles, the Prime’s practicality is only heightened by its electrifying rear end, which plugs into a standard household socket for a recharging cycle of just 5.5 hours.
But there’s more to the Prime than just efficiency and some alien-like looks. Beneath all of the hybrid hype and a wallet-friendly $27,100 starting price lies a surprisingly sporty sedan that has more futuristic tech than the Starship Enterprise. The Prime truly is the best Prius yet, and even as avid sports car fanatics, we can attest that while it is still not on a performance level that will make driving enthusiasts want to go out and buy one, it is so exquisitely engineered that we can’t help but write a rave review.
Before we get into driving impressions, let’s talk a bit about how the Prime is put together. On the outside it has this bejeweled, quad-LED headlamp design that gives it a Mirai-like appearance, and upon closer inspection it sports an adaptive shutter acrylic grille overlay that rests betwixt both sconces. All of those deeply etched lines aren’t just there for looks either; the Prime channels air around its epidermis, and backward toward the hybrid’s signature “Dual Wave” rear glass, lightweight carbon fiber hatch, and futuristic LED lights.
On the inside, the Prime has a lot of the same China Bone White touches we found in the liftback model, and although its overhangs make it 4.2 inches longer, it has five cubic feet less of interior space and only seats four. But while seating is limited, it is pleasantly plush and spacious. The steering wheel and controls are easily identifiable and ergonomic, and thanks to utilizing a smaller and more efficient battery, there’s loads of leg space and head room. Internally, the the Prime also plays home to a horizontally-mounted driver screen that is easy to read and carries a lot of cool tech, as well as a stunning 11.6-inch touchscreen and a one-off JBL audio setup on Advanced models that are designed to be lighter, more efficient, and surprisingly powerful.
The car also comes with what Toyota calls Prime Apps, which include remote charge management, charging station maps, Eco minders, remote climate control, and a vehicle finder. Prime owners can now remotely manage the vehicle’s charging schedule and status, find charging stations, track and compare driving scores with other people on social media, and remotely control the vehicle’s climate all from their smartphone.
Naturally, Prius Prime Apps require a Safety Connect subscription, but since buyers get a three-year complimentary trial, we don’t see this being much of an issue. As for the 11.6-inch touchscreen, we found ourselves treating it like an Entune tablet, as we pinched, scrolled, swiped, and explored every nook and cranny of its gorgeous high definition interface with only one hypocritical issue: You cannot punch in a new destination while the vehicle is moving because it is distracting, but playing with control settings, infotainment, and more is completely acceptable, even when all of these are just as distracting.
As far as the Advanced model goes, the Prime lives up to its name with a heated steering wheel, remote climate control systems, rain-sensing variable intermittent wipers, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink making a splash. It also comes with LED fog lights, a color head-up display (HUD) that includes a speedometer, hybrid battery charge Hybrid System Indicator navigation, and various TSS-P safety info.
Speaking of safety, opting for the $33,100 Advanced model won’t just get you blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts, but emergency assistance, a stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance, and automatic collision notifications as well. Toss in the fact that the government is offering a $4,500 federal tax credit and local municipalities are dangling $2,000 incentives, and the already affordable Prime looks even more enticing.
The Prime pounds out the old notion that hybrids are boring with a ten-pound hammer. While the double-wishbone rear suspension and MacPherson fronts are indeed off the liftback model, they have been fine-tuned exclusively for the Prime, with stabilizers, springs, and bushings all receiving upgrades for sharper handling and a smoother ride. Its electric steering system isn’t completely aloof either, and even when confronted with sharper canyon corners, the car handled itself in a tight manner that resulted in some smiles and lots of tire squeal.
It may only have 121 horsepower on paper, but the Prime’s CVT engages every ounce of it without hesitation, and in POWER mode, it yields a driving experience that borderlines on being fun. It also cruises quietly, has 25 miles of electric range, brakes confidently, and offers amazing visibility despite the fact that the Dual Wave rear glass does have a split portion.
On the downside, the Prime doesn’t reach half of the Volt’s 53 electric mile range, it only has one USB port in the entire cabin, there are no ventilated cushions or a power-operated passenger seat, and surround camera views are non-existent. It also has rear turn signals that are mounted quite low vertically, which could be a hazard in a country where large semis and lifted trucks are unable to see such warnings when up close.
Overall the Advanced version of the Prime is still an outstanding automobile, and due to its fantastic futuristic looks, modest pricing, surprisingly enjoyable driving dynamics, and considerable government tax incentives, makes for a winning buy. Having said that, it would be interesting to forego the hideous 15-inch, efficiency focused wheels and narrow hard compound tires in favor of something like the alloys off the RAV4 SE in order to see how the vehicle truly performs. It may sound like heresy, but with 54 mile per gallon averages on deck and an agile chassis at the ready, we feel that it would be worthwhile to sacrifice a small amount of fuel for an even more invigorating driving experience.