This is how you compete: You study rivals who have taken giant steps forward. You look at competitors who are giving you real market challenges, but you proceed, unafraid, always thinking about and looking at the future.
You look at your own success — a technical, engineering and commercial win that opened the market for electric vehicles of all sorts, including gas-electric hybrids, plug-ins, plug-in hybrids, electric-only.
You don’t rest on your laurels. In fact, you view laurels as obstacles. You just want to get better and better … and better … and inarguably remain the best.
Welcome to the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime hatchback.
The Prius Prime replaces the Prius Plug-in, which operates for short mileage (about 14 miles as used by this column) electric-only and can motor on for nearly 50 miles per gallon as a gasoline-electric hybrid.
The Prius Prime operates in much the same manner — only better, much better.
The Prius Prime uses a larger lithium-ion battery to deliver 25 miles in electric-only mode. You plug it in to recharge. But if you want to use the front-wheel-drive hatchback as a gasoline-electric hybrid, you fill its11.3-gallon tank with regular unleaded fuel that feeds a 1.8-liter, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder engine/generator.
Working in tandem with the car’s battery-powered motors, the hybrid gas-electric system can go 55 miles per gallon.
That is at least five miles per gallon more than a regular Prius, which already delivers some of the best fuel efficiency in the hybrid-electric world.
I kept thinking “Tesla” during my time in the Prius Prime. That is because much of the technology in the Prius Prime reminds me of what is found in the Tesla — at a much higher cost. But the Prius Prime really competes against models such as the Chevrolet Volt hatchback (a plug-in electric hybrid), the Ford Fusion Energi sedan, the Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid and, yes, the new-for-2017 Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro hybrids.
I’ll start an argument. I think the 2017 Prius Prime is better than all of them. Three reasons: It certainly is more accessible than most Tesla models, yet it has lots of Tesla-like technology, including an 11.6-inch center touch screen that controls most of the car’s operations and provides some of the best onboard navigation information available in any vehicle. It has a complete package of advanced electronic safety items (marketed here as “Toyota Safety Sense”) — a package usually found in more expensive automobiles. I got 56.7 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving. 56.7!
Ah, yes, and it is a car — fun to drive and comfortable on the highway. The Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro have moved up in the “real car” regard. But they feel heavier, less agile than the Prius Prime.
Also, the Prius Prime seems better designed inside and out than its global rivals, although it is not as fancy as the much more expensive Tesla. But the Prius Prime has a sporty exterior and cleanly designed and ergonomically sensible interior — a comfortable, efficient and pleasant little car to be in and drive.
Yeah, Toyota. I really like what you’ve done with this one.
Bottom line: This column moves the Prius Prime to the top of the list for anyone shopping for a gas-electric car — that’s traditional gas-electric hybrid or plug-in gas-electric hybrid .
Ride, acceleration and handling: It is a comfortable commuter — safe, efficient and pleasant to drive in daily urban and suburban traffic, an easy fit in high-speed highway traffic.
Head-turning quotient: The exterior is super-sporty, perhaps more than it ought or needs to be. I prefer the outside looks of the Kia Niro and Hyundai Ioniq here. But Toyota needs to be congratulated for working with JBL for designing and installing that 11.6-inch touch screen in the cabin.
Body style/layout: The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is a much-improved plug-in gas-electric hybrid that replaces its predecessor, the Prius Plug-in hybrid. It is front-wheel drive with four side doors and a rear hatch. There are three trim levels — Prime Plus, Prime Advanced and Prime Premium. This column recommends the all-inclusive Premium trim for best value.
Power system: It combines a plug-in electric motor (good for 25 miles electric-only) and a 1.8-liter, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder gasoline engine/generator with variable valve timing to yield an estimated 121 horsepower and combined city/highway 55 miles per gallon. It uses a continuously variable automatic transmission to send power to the front wheels.
Capacity: The larger lithium-ion battery will cost you one seat. The Prius Prime accommodates four people, as opposed to five in the regular Prius Hybrid. Cargo capacity with all seats in place is 19.8 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 11.3 gallons of regular-grade gasoline.
Mileage: I averaged 56.7 miles per gallon in city/highway driving!
Safety: Standard equipment includes a full suite of advanced electronic safety items such as lane-departure warning and blind-side monitoring; four-wheel disc brakes, ventilated front/solid rear; four-wheel anti-lock brake protection; emergency braking assistance; post- and pre-collision safety systems; traction and stability control; LED headlamps; and side and head air bags.
Price: The 2017 Prius Prime at Premium trim level starts at $34,203, which includes an $895 factory-to-dealer shipping charge. Dealers in the area are offering an average of $1,203 in discounts. You can bargain on this one.