2017 Toyota Prius Prime: first drive of new plug-in hybrid

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2017 Toyota Prius Prime, 2016 New York Auto Show

2017 Toyota Prius Prime, 2016 New York Auto Show

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Toyota is the king of electrified powertrains. With more than nine million hybrid vehicles sold worldwide at this point, and well over 5.5 million of those wearing a Prius badge, no other automaker comes close.

Yet somehow that expertise and market domination hasn’t resulted in any higher-volume electric car; at present, Toyota doesn’t have a single pure EV in its stable. 

Although finally, later this year, it will have a car that many owners will be plugging in every day, and truly using as an EV, in all 50 states: the Prius Prime, a special plug-in version of the Prius that this time aims to be a step up from the standard Prius.

DON'T MISS: 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid: 22-mile range, styling updates: Live photos and video

The previous Prius Plug-In wasn’t exactly that. Or perhaps you might say it was a little too true to its name, and not “cordless” enough in the way buyers wanted.

The automaker has been careful about correcting some real sore points about the Plug-In—most notably, that it was rated by the EPA with an all-electric range of just 6 miles (and an extended, blended mode good for 11 miles). 

Even more maligned with the former Plug-In was that there was no way to actually lock in a pure electric mode. Press the accelerator a little too far and your carefully planned, fossil-fuel-free day would be ruined. 

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

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Aimed at (zero-tailpipe-emissions) hearts and minds

To the point, the new Prius Prime is designed to win over the hearts and minds of those who want an electric car for the daily grind, plus worry-free extended-range capability for the weekend.

And it’s hoping that owners will more often use words like sporty and visceral about the driving experience.  

It definitely starts on the right track, packing a significant 8.8-kwh lithium-ion battery pack good for 22 miles of all-electric range (enough to satisfy the daily commuting needs of half of American commuters, Toyota says).

READ FOR MORE: 2016 Toyota Prius Prime: details on 120 MPGe plug-in hybrid, all-electric mode

And EV Mode now locks in. When you have an adequate charge, and it’s in its default EV Mode, not even a mash of the accelerator to the floor will rouse the internal combustion engine.

Based on what we saw over a couple of hours and about 10 miles of a preliminary drive in Japan late last month, that’s a realistic 22 miles; you may even get significantly more if you take full advantage of the Prius Prime’s special efficiency displays and preconditioning capability.

It’s all very tentative, of course, as what we drove weren’t production models but pre-production prototypes—even though the powertrain and important bits were in production form and they looked like fully finished cars.

But for those who plan to use that all-electric driving range, it’s extremely promising. 

2017 Toyota Prius Prime, 2016 New York Auto Show

2017 Toyota Prius Prime, 2016 New York Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

Don’t get me wrong

In its EV Mode, the Prius isn’t just pretending. It accelerates from a standing start with confidence and a light chirp of the front tires, and then accelerates with a distant, familiar all-electric whine.

And especially for the first 30 or 40 mph, it’s definitely no slouch, as it pins you back in the driver’s seat in a way that the standard Prius won’t. 

Toyota says the conventional Prius and the Prius Prime have exactly the same acceleration estimates to 60 mph: conservatively, around 10.5 seconds. In EV Mode, though, the Prime is clearly quicker below 40 or 50 mph. 

CHECK OUT: Why Next Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Is So Important: CA Laws

The Prius Prime has nearly the same planetary-gear hybrid system as the Prius, with the exact same two electric motors (named MG1 and MG2 for those in the know). However they’re put to use in a different way in the Prime. 

So close, yet so different to the sub-Prime

The key difference is that the Prime has a Sprag clutch (a type of one-way clutch) that locks in with the crankshaft during EV Mode, turning what’s normally a starter/generator into a second traction motor.

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

2017 Toyota Prius Prime

Enlarge Photo

Through the hybrid system, these two motors are then put to use as a team but of course have separate effective ratios.

Otherwise, the hardware is exactly the same, with a 95-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, and total system power at 121 hp. 

The result is a Prius that, in its EV Mode, drives like a sprightly electric car for the first 22 miles, then achieves fuel economy that’s identical to that of most of the Prius lineup (52 mpg combined), and a total driving range of more than 600 miles.

There’s no fast-charging here. The Prius Prime charges up in about 2.5 hours on Level 2 (240-volt) systems, or about 5.5 hours on a household 110V socket.

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