2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid: video road test

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The 2017 Toyota Prius Prime is a new plug-in version of the fourth-generation Prius hybrid launched last year.

It succeeds the previous Prius Plug-In Hybrid, but it's a much better—and considerably more electric—vehicle than that discontinued model.

We've driven the new Prius Prime in southern California, but is it the right car for you?

Here's our assessment of the plug-in hybrid hatchback's strengths and weaknesses.

We think the Prime is definitely better-looking than the regular hybrid Prius, whose design is—frankly—more than a little bizarre.

Toyota has done a lot of restyling to turn the Prius into the Prime.

In part, that's because the plug-in model is 4 inches longer to accommodate the 8.8-kwh battery pack that sits under the rear seat and load bay.

The Prime has a new and more aggressive front end, horizontal taillights—rather than the bizarre vertical shapes on the base Prius—and an interesting twin-domed rear window in the hatchback.

Inside, it has a large 11-inch tablet-style touchscreen display in the center of the dash on all except the base model.

It's the powertrain, of course, that differentiates the Prius Prime from its higher-volume hybrid sibling.

And there, the product engineers made an unexpected and interesting choice.

If there's any capacity left in its battery, the Prime defaults to all-electric mode. It doesn't turn on the engine—at all—until the battery has depleted.

That's very different than the first plug-in Prius, which had such limited electric capability that drivers complained it would kick on the engine if they breathed too hard.

You can tell the Prime to operate in combined hybrid-and-electric mode, but that requires pressing a button every time the car starts.

Once the battery has depleted, the Prius Prime gets an EPA rating of 54 mpg combined—better than the standard Prius at 52 mpg, though slightly below the Prius Two Eco model at 56 mpg.

Because it's all-electric by default, the Prius Prime driving experience is calm, quiet, and pleasant.

It's not all that fast, but the Prime has adequate power up to 60 mph—and its 0-to-30-mph acceleration is good.

It will stay in electric mode at speeds up to around 75 mph.

And with 25 miles of range, Prius Prime drivers may be able to use electricity alone for a majority of their trips—as do many drivers of the much longer-range Chevy Volt.

No safety ratings are out for the Prius Prime alone, though last year's new conventional Prius was designated a Top Safety Pick+ by the IIHS.

But the Prime has a comprehensive suite of electronic active-safety features—with the awkward name of Toyota Safety Sense-P—as standard equipment.

Toyota offers the Prius Prime in three trim levels.

They start with the base Prime Plus, though the volume seller will be the mid-level Prime Premium. At the top of the range is the Prime Advanced.

Pricing is aggressive, with the Plus starting at $28,000, the Premium below $30,000, and the Advanced at $34,000. (All prices include delivery.)

Toyota says it will sell the Prius Prime in all 50 states.

Based on its battery size, it qualifies for a $4,500 federal income-tax credit.

And in California, it's also eligible for a $1,500 purchase rebate—plus the coveted green sticker that gives solo drivers access to freeway carpool lanes.

There it is: the Prius Prime gives you up to 25 miles of electric range, and class-leading fuel economy when running on gasoline.

With 640 miles of combined gasoline and electric range, you'll visit gas stations only rarely, if at all.

And you get legendary Toyota reliability, plus styling that's an improvement on the regular Prius.

Is it enough of an electric car?

For Prius fans who have yet to take the plunge into plugging in, it's a fantastic first step—with the security of that gasoline engine to alleviate any range anxiety.

If Toyota can explain the virtues of a plug-in hybrid, we think the Prius Prime has a bright future.

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