FOR PEOPLE WHO think the regular Toyota Prius relies too much on gas, yet aren’t ready to fully embrace a dedicated EV, the 2017 Prius Prime provides a bridge. Much like the Chevrolet Volt, the Prime can go electric for short distances and rely on its hybrid powertrain for longer trips, with no range worries. What a difference five years makes. Back in 2012 Toyota rolled out a Prius plug-in. It was a half-hearted effort that promised some electric-only range but resorted to turning its gas engine on at every opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, in our owner satisfaction survey the Prius Plug-in hybrid ranked well below the regular Prius. Clearly the company could do better. But with the fourth-generation Prius, the plug-in takes on a dedi cated name, several styling detail differences, and, most importantly, the ability to go run on electric-only power more often and for longer distances. We just bought a $29,889 Prius Prime to test.

Driving Impressions So far, we’ve seen an electric range of 22 miles, thanks to an 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery. It takes about two hours to replenish the battery with a 240V connector. But the Prius Prime can also be charged on 120V overnight.

Unlike its predecessor, the Prime remains in electric mode even at full throttle or climbing hills. It’s only during very cold temperatures and at highway speeds that it’ll fire the gas engine while in electric mode. Once past those electric-only miles, the car reverts to regular hybrid operation.

A long press on the Mode button shifts into battery recharge mode, in which the engine works constantly and thus buzzes monotonously. It doesn’t take long before you gain five or six miles of electric range, which can be used in an urban environment or anywhere else. Of course, this runs the engine, cutting into fuel economy.

With a full battery, the Prime essentially delivers an electric car experience, complete with near-silent running and brisk response. In hybrid operation, it functions much like a regular Prius, which returned 52 mpg overall in our tests. Ultimately, the Prime promises a combined range of more than 600 miles. In other respects the Prime drives very similarly to the regular Prius, with a comfortable, steady ride and handling that’s responsive and secure, though not sporty.

Inside the Cabin
Anyone familiar with the regular Prius will feel at home inside the Prius Prime. Still, there are differences. One thing that is noticeable immediately: the Prime is only a four-seater. The big battery takes up the space between the two rear passengers. And drivers will quickly realize that, due to the curved rear window, there’s no wiper to clean the rear glass. Three equipment levels are available, with the top trim distinguished by a larger touch screen and faux leather seats, with the driver’s seat powered. Another difference is the large, Tesla-like touch screen, which serves as the gateway to the audio system, trip information, phone, and navigation. We find it extremely distracting and tedious to use.

You’ll get to Toyota’s various apps and other secondary items before you’ll figure out how to get simple good-old FM radio. Yes, it’s that maddening. The seat heater controls seem like an afterthought-the switch is low and far away on the dash, practically by your ankles. Rear-seat passengers won’t notice much difference-if any-between the accommodations in the regular Prius or the Prime. However, current Prius owners take note: don’t expect the Prime to provide the same expansive storage space. While the rear seats do fold flat, the battery takes up a large percentage of the cargo area.

Advanced active safety systems are standard, including forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking.