Primed for annoyance in Toyota's new Prius

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(September 5, 2017) The timing could not have been better. It was time for the annual family get together that kinda sorta takes place at the same time as Cindy’s Uncle Bill’s birthday. His brother Ernie would be there, as would their sister Pat and Cindy’s mom, Helen. It was the perfect backdrop for the car we were driving that week.

That car was the Advanced trim series of the new Prius Prime, which sounds like the name of a planet to which climate change believers would escape when Earth becomes uninhabitable. (Yes, uninhabitable. Insufferable means something else.)

Only Prius Prime is not a planet, but a new name for an old idea: the Prius Plug-in. It’s called Prime because Toyota wants you to know that this Prius is the best equipped and most efficient Prius around. It returns an EPA-estimated 133 MPGe when the 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack is fully charged. A process that takes about 5.5 hours when plugged into your standard wall outlet. That 265-pound battery gives up to 25 miles of electric-only driving, and can push the Prius Prime to 84 mph, but not at the same time.

Pull the plug, so to speak, and drive the Prime like you would a regular Prius, and the EPA says you will get mileage of 55 city/53 highway/54 combined. Yet, according to the readout on the color head-up display, the car was returning a stellar 68 mpg in constant-speed highway driving. How close this was to the truth — inconvenient or not — could only be ascertained by checking the fuel used against the miles traveled. Unfortunately, I didn’t come close to having to fill the car up before it went back, so we will never know.

What I do know is that, on the outside, the Prius Prime gets unique front and rear fascias, ultra-low profile LED headlights, an acrylic grille, unique LED rear lights, and Zagato-like “dual wave” rear hatch glass. (The hatch frame, it should be noted, is a lightweight molded composite.) It’s even more aggressive looking than the standard Prius, especially in the Magnetic Gray Metallic paint of our test car. Though, like the regular Prius, the standard alloy wheels are fitted with aerodynamic plastic wheel covers to help bring the coefficient of drag (Cd) down to 0.25. It may seem a little strange, but the covers are very effective at efficiently flowing air through the wheel wells, and out along the body sides.

Inside, the Prius Prime has a four-seat layout with front and rear center consoles, and Toyota likes to say that the standard 60/40 folding rear seat back is unaffected by the larger battery due to the shift to Toyota’s new TNGA structure. It places the pack out of the way under the cargo floor.  Only the cargo floor is much higher than it is on the standard Prius, severely limiting the depth of the items you can carry in the back.

The seats are covered in Toyota’s SofTex synthetic leather trim, and the front chairs are heated. Plus, the “Smart-Flow” climate control system focuses forced air on the seating areas in order to keep the driver and passengers comfortable while using less energy. There’s even a heat pump function that works when the engine is off in temperatures as low as 14-degrees Fahrenheit, or to keep the cabin cool in warm weather.

The real party piece, however, is the 11.6-in. (vertical) high-def infotainment display. It dominates the instrument panel in a manner similar to a Tesla Model S, and looks like someone deftly fitted an iPad to the center stack. Climate control adjustment takes place through this interface on all but the Prime Plus, the map graphics are just as bad as on the standard Prius, and a lot of the display real estate is wasted because the non-navigation functions are buried in the lower half of the screen. Toyota would have been better off using the display for more, well, display. Nevertheless, the ginormous screen gets everyone’s attention.

When I drove the standard car, I said it was the first likable Prius ever. Actually, I said: “Toyota has made great strides with the fourth generation Prius, turning it from a milquetoast science experiment for the terminally sanctimonious into a much more analog — and, therefore, human — hybrid sedan.”

True, it still had the annoying gear lever, the more annoying high-pitched chime that sounds inside the car (!) whenever it’s shifted into reverse, too much wind noise in the A-pillar/outside mirror area, and it’s easy to forget that you have to both press the button that puts the transmission in Park and turn off the main power switch before exiting the car.

Yet it was more composed, refined and — seriously — fun to drive than expected. Especially since the transition from acceleration to regeneration to actual braking was much improved. If only that was true for the Prius Prime tested. It showed an annoying (there’s that word again) sensitivity when transitioning from coasting (regeneration) to braking, and caused more than one epithet to leave my lips. Nor
did it get better as I became more familiar with the car. If anything, the Prime became the rolling embodiment of the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

Even so, it had a job to do as the perfect vehicle for Cindy’s family’s get together. Short of arriving in a Tesla, a plug-in version of the hybrid that put the genre on the map was the perfect transportation for the Gore family reunion. Yes, that Gore family. None was ready to trade out of their conventionally powered SUVs or sedans for the Prius Prime, though Ernie gave us some prime ribbing by deftly noting our ride, “probably uses less energy than cousin Al’s pool heater.”

Undoubtedly so. What it doesn’t do, however, is give a very compelling reason to choose it over the standard car.

The Virtual Driver