The Toyota Prius Prime is a solid, well-priced car, but there are some notable caveats.
Hi, I’m David - A self confessed EV and PHEV enthusiast. I currently own 5 plug-in vehicles that I rent out on Turo, and I’ve owned several EVs and PHEVs before. I wanted to write a review of the Toyota Prius Prime and talk about the good and the bad. This review is written mostly for enthusiasts of plug-in cars, and perhaps not so much for the general public who seem to remain mystified by plug-in vehicles.
So, why do I own one of these? Well, I wanted to add another vehicle to my Turo fleet and I was trying to decide between a Chevy Bolt EV or a Prius Prime. Don’t get me wrong, if the car had been a car “for me” I would have rather had the Bolt. I ended up choosing the Prime because after doing research on Turo, I had decided the Prime would probably rent out more often than the Bolt EV, especially in the area I live in. Part of my reasoning was that it would also attract customers who were just looking to rent a Prius, thus helping to keep the car rented out and essentially pay the bill on it. So, the reason I picked the car was purely business and not personal bias.
The reason I mentioned this is because I want to set the stage that I’m going to be giving this car a more unbiased review than what you might get from somebody who bought one just to drive for themselves, or what a professional car reviewer might give.
Problem #1 - Finding one.
I live in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area. When I decided to go with the Prime, I started shopping around for one. The first thing I noticed is that no Toyota dealers in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area had any in stock. Literally, none. At first, I thought this might be because the car was selling so well they couldn’t keep them in stock. So, I drove to the nearest toyota dealer to me, Vandergriff Toyota, and asked them when they were planning to have the Prime in stock. One thing I noticed is that they actually did not even have any regular Prius hybrids on the lot. Literally, none. The salesmen didn’t know what a Prius Prime was, but said he could order a Prius for me if I wanted. After he went and chatted with the manager he came back and changed his stance. He said they do not carry the Prime and cannot even order it. Then he tried to sell me a Rav4. Obviously, I left.
I drove to another dealer over in Dallas. They had a Prime on the lot for giving demo drives, which I took them up on. However, as you probably guessed, it wasn’t even charged up. They didn’t even have a charger on the lot. So driving it wasn’t really any different than driving a regular Prius. He said they would happily order a Prime for me, but they were adding an additional fee of like $5,000 over MSRP for the trouble. I said, no thanks.
I found the same thing time after time when going to different Toyota dealers. Eventually, I started talking with some Toyota dealers in New York about possibly having one shipped to me. At first this seemed like an attractive deal. I even paid $1,000 to secure the vehicle I wanted. But in the end, the cost of shipping ended up being much higher than the originally suggested it would be, plus they wouldn’t sell the vehicle to me at the advertised price they had on their website, saying that was for local customers only. I had to demand they return my $1,000, which they eventually did.
After two months of trying to buy a Prime, I had just about given up. But then one of the local dealers in Ft.Worth mysteriously ended up with one on the lot. Of course, they wanted MSRP and not a dollar less. It was a premium model with the color I liked, so I bought it. That was six months ago. Are things any better today? Barely. I just did a check on cars.com and there are exactly FOUR Prius Primes available in the Dallas/Fort.Worth area. So, if you really want one, you can buy one. But dealers aren’t exactly going out of their way to stock and advertise them. In fact, during the entire time I’ve owned one, I’ve only seen exactly 2 others on the road.
When the Prius Prime was first announced, I had made a prediction that Toyota would be selling 5,000 of these per month, maybe more, maybe as many as 10,000. I had many good reasons for saying this would happen. I said that Toyota dealers were used to selling hybrids and they would be eager to sell more, rather than doing like Chevy dealers. But, it turns out at least in this part of the country, Toyota dealers are treating the Prime exactly how Chevy dealers treat the Volt and Bolt. So, this is a big fail on Toyota’s part. Obviously they aren’t interested in selling more than 2,000 Primes per month.
It’s a great car, as far as cars go!
So, to be balanced with this review, I want to talk as much about the good parts as the bad. The Prius is actually a really comfortable car to drive. In fact, it’s the most comfortable of any of my EVs. It has visibility out the sides and rear that go unmatched. That’s one of those things I didn't use to care much about. However, since I’m often driving a different car each day depending on what is rented out, I start to notice differences like this. And compared to the Chevrolet Volt, Tesla, or Fiat, the visibility is amazing.
The Prime has been very reliable. It hasn’t had any infotainment glitches, freezes, or reboots. Something I can’t say about the Volt or Tesla. It hasn’t had to go back to the dealer for anything except an oil change. Again, something I can’t say about any of my other cars. I think it’s safe to say that the legendary Toyota reliability will apply very much to this car.
Every Turo customer has brought the car back and absolutely raved about how great of a car it was. I haven’t had a single complaint or problem experienced with any of my customers. It is literally a 100% satisfaction rating. This is definitely something I can’t say about the other cars. Sure, I can say that the Volt and the BMW i3 get like 95% satisfaction, but I can’t say 100%. The Tesla probably comes close, but I haven’t had it long enough to really make the comparison.
The Prius Prime is a modified Prius.
So, in the world of plug-in cars we often talk about whether a car is built from the ground up to be a plug-in car or not. Obviously, the Chevy Bolt, BMW i3, and Tesla cars are definitely designed this way. But many other cars are conversions or shared platforms with gas cars. This is especially the case with PHEVs. In fact, the vast majority of PHEVs were originally gas cars that have been modified. This is abundantly obvious with cars like Ford’s Fusion and C-Max energi. I think many of BMW’s PHEVs are also clearly conversions.
So what about the Prius Prime? Well, outwardly, it would appear to be very different from the regular Prius. But most of what you are seeing is just different body panels. Plus the liftback uses different glass and a carbon fiber construction. I believe this was most likely done to reduce weight, helping to offset the weight gained by the larger battery.
Inside is a different story. There is virtually no difference in how the dash layout or instrumentation appears as compared to the regular Prius hybrid. Not that this is a problem, as the regular Prius isn’t bad. Obviously, the rear seat only seats two, a common complaint about the Prime. And if you open the hatchback, you’ll see a taller floor, limiting storage space. It’s not as bad as something like Ford’s products. There’s no obvious battery hump, but if you had a regular Prius next to the Prime, you’d clearly see how much cargo area you lost to the battery.
The instrumentation is of course all software based. There are essentially 3 color LCD screens: two small ones for the gauge cluster, and one large one for the infotainment system. However, it is obvious to me that they’ve simply tacked on a few extra screens to the regular Prius screens. In fact, it seems rather clunky the way it was done. Overall, the EV mode reminds me of early digital cameras that started to include movie-clip capabilities. It’s like that wasn’t really the main focus of the product, but it was a neat afterthought. That’s sort of how I feel the EV mode stuff was added to the instrumentation of the Prime.
The battery pack placement in the hatchback is another indication that the PHEV aspect was very much added onto an existing vehicle, rather than designing it from ground up. The charging door is annoying. It’s twice as large as it should be. I understand the reason. It’s because in Japan the Prime gets a Chademo port alongside the J1772. But they chose not to offer the Chademo in the USA. Yet, we still get the huge charge port door. I feel cheated that I didn’t get Chademo, and I also didn’t get a redesigned quarter panel with an appropriately sized charge door. Another indication that Toyota didn’t plan to sell enough of these to offer the variation.
How does it compare with other PHEVs?
OK, so here’s where things get interesting. The Prius Prime is the 2nd best-selling plug-in vehicle in the USA for 2018 and the best-selling PHEV. So, that must mean something, right?
The Prius Prime offers 25 miles of EV range. As low as that sounds, it’s actually not bad. Of the approximately 26 PHEVs currently sold in the USA, it ranks number 4, right under the BMW i3 Rex, Chevy Volt, and Honda Clarity. However, the Volt is about to disappear, which means the Prius Prime will move up to the number 3 spot shortly. And to be honest, I drive the car fairly often and I rarely ever use the gas engine. Granted, I am mostly using it for running errands, going to family’s house, and the grocery store. But the bottom line is, 25 miles is more than most people think. That’s about an hour’s worth of driving in city traffic. It’s about half an hour on the freeway. Granted, most PHEV drivers are always asking for more EV range, and I think that’s only natural. But the reality is 25 miles is enough for a lot of people.
How is the acceleration performance compared to other PHEVs? The car is so slow that my wife and I have nicknamed it “The Slowmobile.” (This is a reference from the Futurama Episode “How Hermes Requisitioned his Groove Back.”) Now, to be fair, it is probably as fast as the average car was 20 or 30 years ago. It does 0 to 60 in about 10.2 seconds (Car and Driver) in hybrid mode, or 12.2 seconds in EV mode. As far as EV mode goes, the performance is actually pretty decent compared to other PHEV models except the Volt or BMW i3 Rex. But, the hybrid-mode performance is where it really lacks. For example, the Ford Fusion Energi can do 0-60 in about 8 seconds using hybrid mode.
To be fair, driving around in the city using EV mode is actually just fine. The 0-30 performance is decent and you can easily outrun the casual driver from a stop light if you need to get in front of somebody. Where it feels really slow is above 30 mph. Again, trying to be fair I’ve driven the car in EV mode plenty on the highway, even at 80 mph. It will definitely get you there and during the course of normal driving patterns, it never feels slow. But, when you suddenly want to go fast and you press the throttle to the floor, you’ll find there is no extra power to be had. Even though the car is technically faster in hybrid mode, I honestly can’t tell the difference. I think it is because what little power it has in EV mode is delivered instantly, whereas the slightly more power it has in hybrid mode is delivered more gradually. Also, I think the extra power it has in hybrid mode is probably only above 30 mph, which means you won’t notice any difference in regular city driving.
One thing that does go in its favor. If the battery is charged, it always defaults to EV mode. And you can push the pedal all the way to the floor and it will stay in EV mode. Granted, it may not be super fast but at least you don’t have to worry about engaging the gas engine if you try to accelerate too hard, unlike some other PHEVs.
However, there’s one mystery I haven’t been able to find the answer to. The Prius Prime has more or less the same acceleration performance as the standard Prius hybrid. Yet, it has a much larger battery pack that can deliver more amps. It also has a larger inverter so that it can have an EV mode that allows the car to operate at any speed in EV mode. It has the same ICE which outputs the same horsepower. So, in theory the Prius Prime should be able to accelerate a little better than a standard prius. This is, assuming you were operating in hybrid mode and allowing the ICE to run. So why isn’t it any faster? My guess is they didn’t want it to be faster. I have several working theories as to why, but I’m not sure which of those theories is correct. I’ll be interested to read any comments as to what your theories might be.
What about value for the money?
Here’s where I think the Prius Prime really comes through. At a starting price of $27,300, it is hard to complain much about the car. And currently, it still enjoys a federal tax credit of around $4,500, plus I got another $2,500 from the state of Texas. So, effectively, I got $7,000 off the price of the car, making it considerably cheaper than a regular Prius.
Government subsidies aside, it’s still hard to complain much about the price of the car considering what you are getting. It’s priced much cheaper than most any other plug-in hybrids, even ones that offer less EV range. For example, the Clarity PHEV starts at $33,400. The BMW i3 Rex starts at $48,300 and most likely will have less equipment at that price than the Prius Prime base model. So, the only two PHEVs with more range than the Prime also cost considerably more.
So, yes. I think the Prius Prime is a good value for the money.
The batteries in the Prius Prime are air-cooled using a fan to force air from the cabin through the battery cells. This is the same way Prius batteries have been cooled since the very first Prius. This is bound to be better than Nissan’s complete lack of thermal management, but probably not as good as a liquid cooled setup. The real question is, how will they hold up long-term? I’ve heard stories that some other air-cooled batteries, such as in Ford’s products end up with capacity loss after a few years in a hot climate. It remains to be seen whether Toyota will have that issue. Historically, Toyota has always had reliable battery packs in their hybrids. But it’s important to realize that a regular hybrid can lose half of its battery capacity and most drivers will never know the difference. In fact, the batteries are sized that way on purpose so that they will last the life of the car, even with degradation. However, in a PHEV drivers will certainly notice if there is capacity loss, because that will translate into EV range loss.
Another strange behavior I thought I’d mention is the active cooling while charging. During the Summer, if it is hot outside and I power off the car, it will pop up a message on the screen. It wants to know if it is okay to run the air conditioner during charging. If I say yes, it will run the AC during charging which will cool the entire cabin, but it will also cool the battery pack. If I say no, or just don’t happen to notice the message and walk away from the car (which is likely with most customers) then it will not run the AC.
I’m totally baffled by this design. I can’t really think of any scenario where it would be a problem to run the AC while the car is charging, whether it is indoors or outdoors. It isn’t like the engine will be running. There won’t be any emissions. Other cars like the Volt or a Tesla don’t ask, they just run the battery cooling by default. There doesn’t appear to be any setting within the car where you can have this default to yes. So, I have to be careful to remember each and every time I power down the car in hot weather to look for the message and authorize it to cool the battery.
Declining Prius sales
So, the Prius Prime doesn’t sell in huge numbers, which I largely attribute to problem #1 that you read at the beginning of this article. Despite that, it still accounts for about one third of Prius family sales at this point. This can largely be attributed to the overall decline in Prius sales in general. And while some people claim the Prius sales are declining because the new body style is ugly, or because people are switching from hybrids to EVs, the real answer is something else entirely. Toyota is now offering hybrid options in more and more vehicles. People used to buy the Prius because they “wanted a hybrid” and the Prius was pretty much the only game in town worth having. But now, people can buy a Rav4 hybrid, Camry hybrid, Avalon hybrid, and in a few months they’ll be able to get a Corolla hybrid. These hybrid models are cannibalizing sales from the Prius line.
What’s my final verdict on the car?
Well, admittedly, it’s not a car I’d probably buy for myself. But the only reason I say that is because there are a handful of better cars on the market. But not many. If there were no Chevy Volt or Tesla Model 3, I’d probably consider one. The car is slow, but I think the only reason I feel that way is because I’m so accustomed to my other EVs that are much faster. The EV range also seems low, but again, I think that is because I’ve been spoiled by my other cars which, admittedly cost more money. It’s certainly a car that I would not discourage anyone from buying if they were interested.
My opinion - What Toyota needs to do
Beyond creating a compelling all-electric vehicle (a topic for a totally different discussion), they need differentiate the Prius from their other hybrids. The need to make it the technological leader again. Personally, I feel they need to drop the standard Prius model completely and make all Prius models PHEVs. This would require some redesign because the battery needs to be packaged a little better so that there is less cargo compromise. The Volt’s T-shaped battery was perfect for a vehicle that sits low to the ground like a sedan. However, other battery shapes could work as well.
Then they need to make it clear to their dealers that all dealers need to stock this car. GM was very lax on this, for reasons that only GM knows the answer. I’m at just as much of a loss on Toyota’s stance and why these cars aren’t stocked and sold at every Toyota dealership. Why have I never seen an advertisement for the Prius Prime?
Toyota could easily be selling 6,000 to 10,000 PHEVs every month if they wanted to. Obviously, at this point, they don’t want to.
Toyota PRIUS PRIME