Sizing up Toyota’s Prius Prime

Written by Mary M. Chapman

Time was, a Prius was a Prius was a Prius, and either you wanted one, or you didn't. But with the 2017 introduction of Prius Prime, Toyota went and upped the game. Although it wears the Prius badge, and obviously has the same parents, in some ways the Prime is fundamentally different from the "regular" Prius.

Of course, the biggest difference is that the Prime — which, unlike its predecessor, is sold nationwide — is a plug-in hybrid with a markedly bigger battery that permits all-electric propulsion for up to 'round 25 miles — still quite a bit less than Chevrolet's Volt, by the way. After that, the Prime operates primarily like a regular Prius, in that its new 1.8- liter, four-cylinder engine takes over.

That "regular" Prius — which we'll henceforth call "Prius" — is a conventional hybrid that employs a small gasoline engine and a couple of electric motors, the latter to help animate the wheels and to make electricity for other stuff. It comes in three grades with two trims each, and an inline four-cylinder engine. The battery pack capacity differs by trim.

There is also a goodly difference in exterior aesthetics. Although many colleagues say the Prime looks a heap better than the Prius, many more have expressed disdain. Perhaps owing more than it should to the power of suggestion, I can see the hatin' camp's point.

The design IS kind of out there, starting with the quirky angular face, and a relatively long overhang and tail. In the main, the Prime has quad LED headlamps front side and a curvy glass hatch out back that sits between a set of LED taillights. It does get propers for an expansive windshield and tall side windows.

By the way, the Prime's rear styling, which includes a reshaped bumper, leaves no room for the Prius's wiper, although it does have rain-sensing front blades. So, sure, it's an acquired taste, but after protracted consideration, I still don't much mind. My first impression was "distinctive," and I'll stick with that. The Prius? Well, it'll never be sleek, brawny or comely. But it is aerodynamic, and, that, here, is what counts.

For both models, the interior mostly depends on the level of trim. Because I have the Prime Advanced — it's also in the Prime Premium —I get the big ol' honkin' 11.6-inch high-def multimedia screen, which makes the Prius's seven-inch touchscreen feel like a Dick Tracy watch (young bloods, ask your father). Elsewhere, the Prius seats five but has less cargo space than the four seating Prime, although more than the previous Prius. The Prime's bigger-than-before battery pack eats up  a lot of its space. It does, however, offer plenteous backseat room.

Overall, both models benefit from the Prius's 2016 overhaul, including interior fit and finish and a more traditional layout. Both cabins are comfortable and nicely constructed. I will say that the Prius has an unwieldy smartphone infotainment hookup. Too many steps are required. Both models come with a plethora of standard features, including Toyota's Safety Sense package.

Drive-wise, both rides are quieter than expected, with little road or engine noise. The Prius tools around better than previous iterations; it feels more substantial than before, but is comfortable and smooth. And, unlike many hybrids, it handles pretty well.

The Prime's additional motor and battery size, meanwhile, produce a different kind of drive profile. The Prime gets off the mark faster than the Prius, and somehow just feels quicker. The reality, however, is that they're both rather pokey. The Prius, which can annoy when, say, attempting to pass, simply sacrifices zip for mileage. And, the Prime's handling can feel rather boring. Steering and suspension, though, are good.

Cost-wise, my Prime Advanced was $33,985 the Prius starts at $24,685.

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So, here's the thing. For those who love to drive, love the driving experience, perhaps a Prius is a Prius, no matter the model. But face it, most folks who like the marque like it for its fuel savings (52 mpg combined for the Prius; 54 for the Prime). That, and Toyota's rep for reliability, will keep both models on the road for a long time.

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