2017 Toyota Prius Prime

PHOENIX — When it comes to pioneering vehicles that get exceptional fuel economy, Toyota is the world’s leader, with more than 25 years of alternative fuel vehicles under its belt. Product offerings include the gas-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid and even a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in a few select markets.

Toyota dominates the hybrid market with 13 models accounting for a 70 percent market share. Unlike many auto manufacturers, Toyota does not offer a pure all-electric vehicle, instead favoring a plug-in hybrid.

With the recent introduction of the all-new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid for 2017, Toyota can boast the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the industry. It achieves an impressive 133 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) rating, besting the all-electric BMW i3. MPGe is a measure of how far a car can travel electrically on the same amount of energy contained in one gallon of gasoline.

In hybrid mode, Prius Prime exceeds all competitors’ fuel economy ratings with EPA-estimated 55 mpg city, 53 mpg highway. It also has a class-leading total driving range, an EPA-estimated 640 miles.

Toyota has never had much interest in fully electric vehicles. They did build a few all-electric RAV4s, but abandoned the notion in favor of pursuing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai, which began selling in southern California in 2015.

The Prius Prime is the second go for Toyota’s plug-in hybrid technology. The previous Prius plug-in offered only about 12 miles of electric-only driving range. The new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid more than doubles that range, traveling on electricity for up to 25 miles.

While the 25-mile range beats the Ford C-Max and Ford Fusion Energi’s 19-mile EV range, it falls behind the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid range of 27 miles and is well behind the Chevy Volt, which can go an impressive 53 miles on electric only. The Prime can be driven up to 84 mph in EV mode. Toyota says it will take 2.5 hours to recharge the battery using 220 volts, and six hours with standard household 110 voltage.

I recently tested the Prius Prime, and with its first full electric charge I drove exactly 25 miles before exhausting the battery charge.

Once the battery is depleted, the Prius Prime converts to a conventional hybrid Prius where the vehicle is alternately powered between gas and available electric. The vehicle’s gas engine and electric motors combine to deliver a seamless driving experience. We especially noticed much-improved handling, braking, driving and comfort compared to the conventional Toyota Prius. Still, the Prime lacks most sense of driving engagement, which is to say there isn’t much fun behind the wheel. The Prius is a vehicle devoted to driving efficiency, not sportiness or performance.

While still recognizable as a Toyota Prius, exterior styling of the Prius Prime is a significant departure, especially from the rear, where some described the look as a set of puckering lips. Personally it looked more like a whale fluke — not a bad thing, just different. Additionally, because of the curvature of the rear window, there isn’t a rear wiper.

Inside, the most noticeable feature is the massive 11.6-inch high-resolution screen that functions as the gateway to numerous vehicle functions such as the audio system, navigation, phone and other vehicle operational information. To access these functions, you can pinch and pull, similar to your smartphone, but we found the touchscreen didn’t work very well, was far from intuitive and the capacitive buttons are small and hard to use.

Unlike the regular Prius, the Prime is only a four-seater. Toyota says the larger battery that powers the vehicle takes up more seating space.

We were impressed with the standard advanced active safety systems, including active cruise control, automatic emergency braking and automatic high beams.

The Prime Plus is available in three trim levels with a starting price of $27,965 and up to $33,965 for the heavily equipped Prius Prime Advanced trim level. Prices include delivery fee of $865. The above prices do not include a $4,500 federal income-tax credit.

Vital Stats

Price: $27,965 - $33,965
Price as Tested: $36,081
Seating: 4
Engine: 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, 4-cylinder combined with two-electric motors
Horsepower: 121 – total system horsepower
Fuel Economy: 133 – MPGe and 55-MPG – City, 53 MPG - Highway

Fab Features:

Stellar Fuel Economy
640-Mile Driving Range
Advanced Standard Safety Features

— Jim Prueter