Toyota had one main goal in mind when it engineered the Prius Prime, the upcoming second-generation Prius Plug-In. The new car had to be more electric. Compared to the first plug-in Prius, this wasn’t exactly a difficult task, since that one could go just 11 miles on its piddly battery.
Toyota made its e-mission clear right from the get-go. We learned at the Prime’s unveiling at the New York Auto Show in April that the new model would get 22 miles of all-electric range. That’s also when we learned just how much Toyota heard all your complaints. Whether in online forums, at focus groups, or through customer research, Toyota got the message that what people want from a “green” car in 2016 is electric miles. And an “electric” Prius that could only go 62 miles per hour – like the first-gen did – before the gas engine was forced to turn on just wouldn’t cut it. Good news, everyone. The Prime can reach 84 mph without any assist from the on-board fossil fuels. You might not always want the car to run up to that speed using nothing but battery power, but more on that in a bit.
Customers also told Toyota that they liked the incredible gas-powered efficiency that the Prius offers. For many car buyers, miles per gallon remains the one and only way to define a car’s green cred. The Prime is expected to get the same fuel economy as the fourth-gen Prius Liftback, which means 52 combined mpg. Official numbers will be out later this year, but 52 is a lot higher than, say, the second-gen Chevy Volt, which gets 42 mpg (along with, of course, a whopping 53 miles of all-electric range).
Numbers on paper, though, only tell you a little bit of the story. Thankfully, we recently got to try out a pre-production Prime on a test track in Japan. It was a long way to go for a short drive (just three laps of a three-mile loop), but if you pay attention, you can learn a lot from a little.
You can even learn a lot from the name. It’s not subtle, but the Prime designation makes it clear that Toyota thinks this is the absolute best model in its popular hybrid lineup. And make no mistake, this is undoubtedly a Prius. There’s the traditional push-button starter and, just like all the other Priuses, the Prime proudly carries on the tradition of offering up plenty of pointless beeps and buzzes. You can’t miss the cutesy little melodies that play when the car is turned on or off.
But this time the sci-fi sounds are at least in good company with an 11.6-inch, full-color touchscreen that dominates the center stack and responds to some swipe commands, just like your phone. Navigation comes standard and there’s an available color head-up display to make the Prime feel suitably tech-y. For the few minutes I was able to try it out, the interface felt intuitive and easy to use, and even a bit futuristic. In fact, when you drive the Prime after getting out of a first-gen Prius Plug-In (itself based on a standard third-gen Prius), the differences are so stark you might think a few decades had passed between the two, not just five years.
Without question, the Prime’s MSRP is going to determine if it will be a hit. It certainly could be. If Toyota prices this thing correctly (i.e., at most, around $4,000 more than the standard Prius), there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should buy the Liftback instead, unless they really, really need that fifth seat. That said, anyone looking to buy a new green car in late 2016 or early 2017 will be comparing the Prime with more than just the standard Prius. In a world where the green-car halo has effectively been stolen by Tesla, Toyota needs to do a lot to reclaim its long-standing position in customer minds as the environmental car company. And let’s not forget that cheaper electric vehicles with ranges of over 200 miles – see the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 – are coming soon. In this new reality, a Prius – even a great one like the Prime – with just 22 electric miles might not have the reach it needs.