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2023 Toyota Prius Prime First Drive

Toyota has lately been under-promising and over-delivering. We all assumed the 2023 Prius Prime would be a modest improvement over the outgoing model, but that would be the low-ball of the year. 0-60? Faster than a Civic Si. MPG? Over 50! Range? 44 miles all-electric! The only problem? Since it’s not made in America, it won’t get a tax credit if you decide to buy one. (Sad trombone)

Exterior

The biggest news for the 5th-generation Prius is that it can no longer be labeled a weird or ugly car. In fact, it may not even be a stretch to call this the stylish option in the plug-in hybrid world now. Its closest competitor, the Kia Niro, also took a more design-forward approach for its latest generation, and it makes sense. Toyota says this Prius was targeted at younger buyers who don’t want to go all-in on EVs, so it had to look palatable. We’d say they overshot the runway in all the right ways.

2023 Toyota Prius Prime

The Prius Prime does not stray far from the design of the regular Prius. The only main differences are in the 19″ wheels, the cursive Prime badge on the trunk, and the fact that you can opt for a 150-watt solar roof. A dual-pane moonroof is still available as well, but the solar roof can charge the high-voltage and 12V batteries. Theoretically, if you left your Prime outside in the summertime with clear skies for a couple of weeks, the 13.6-kWh lithium-ion battery could be fully charged for free. While not a realistic scenario, it would be better to utilize this feature to do quick top-offs after parking your car on the roof of an airport parking deck in Arizona during a weekend vacation. Unfortunately, there is not a screen inside the car that displays the status of the panel, so it will be more difficult to gauge how effective it will be day-to-day.

Interior

The Prius Prime’s interior is another pretty major step forward for the nameplate. The vertical touchscreen and swath of gloss black plastic are gone. In their place is a combination of the bZ4X and the Crown, making it a much more premium atmosphere than it really needs to be. Save for a few acceptably hard plastics and an interesting mish-mash of layers higher in the dash and on the door panels, everything looks and feels quite nice for a Prius. The steering wheel and instrument cluster require you to set the column as low as it will go, since you are supposed to view the cluster above the top of the wheel, not through it. If you’re 5′ 9″ or taller, it works just fine. Shorter people might find it ergonomically difficult.

2023 Toyota Prius Prime interior

You can tell the Prime apart from the regular Prius on the inside by one main aspect: the red trim and ambient lighting. Where the hybrid model uses blue, the Prime gets a sporty red look instead. That’s because the Prime is positioned as the sportier model, with only SE, XSE and XSE Premium trims available (Toyota’s sport trim structure). As a result, black is the only seat color choice on all trims no matter if you get cloth or Softex. Like the hybrid, however, the front seats are available with both heating and ventilation, and the rear seats can be heated on the XSE Premium trim.

Powertrain

Powered by the same 2.0L inline 4-cylinder engine as the Prius Hybrid, the 2023 Prime bumps up the electric motor and battery size to give this model a sizable jump in power over the previous generation. Thanks to the 161-horsepower from the electric motor, total system output is a commendable 220 horsepower, giving the Prius more oomph than a Honda Civic Si. You read that right, a Prius is faster than a Civic Si. The new lithium-ion battery is 13.6-kWh in size and can be charged via a rather slow 3.2-kW onboard AC charger, giving the Prime 44 miles of all-electric range. That’s a massive jump over the previous car’s 25-mile range. EPA combined fuel economy drops just a smidge from 54 mpg to a peak 52 mpg. XSE and XSE Premium trims lower that number to 48 due to their heavier curb weights.

The Drive

The Prius Prime has done more than turn over a new leaf, as is obvious when you step on the gas pedal. You actually get a little bit of front wheel slip when gunning it for 0-60 mph, and you might actually tie or beat a Honda Civic Si in the process. Expect 6 to 6.5 seconds in that regard thanks to the extra torque it has from the bigger electric motor up front. Most of that, of course, has to do with the battery, since the design of this hybrid system is basically the same as the regular Prius. Depending on the drive mode that the vehicle is in, you will see different results. In hybrid mode, even if the engine is initially off, it will turn on to provide the full 220 horsepower and give you that Civic Si-beating time. Putting it into EV mode, however, will completely exclude the gas engine up to 84 mph. If you floor it in this mode, 0-60 should stretch out to maybe 11 or 12 seconds.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any official 60-0 stopping distances, but you can bet this is going to take ever so slightly longer than the regular Prius, which is still a definite improvement over the old car. Handling is also noticeably better. In fact, this is very impressive out on winding roads, making it not only as quick as a hot hatch, but as fun to drive as well. You still feel the CVT drone from the hybrid system, but it’s forgivable considering how potent the powertrain is. Toyota has also done a really good job at masking that extra weight of the battery and motor. Unlike our new long-term Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, the Prime’s rear suspension feels just a settled as the front over broken pavement.
Since there is no adaptive suspension system, changing the drive mode into Sport is not going to have any effect on the handling or ride quality either. Really, all those drive modes are going to do is adjust the throttle tip in, so exactly how much you get from the drivetrain based on the throttle position is really just a personal preference thing. A little bit less of a personal preference is likely going to be the sound-deadening in the cabin. This is just about the same as the regular Prius, which isn’t vault-like, but not Civic Si-like either (we know, so many Civic Si comparisons are being made). In hybrid mode, you’re definitely going to hear a decent amount of engine noise in the cabin. Even in EV mode, you’re going to hear the motors more really than in any other battery electric vehicle that we can think of at the moment. It is still pretty much average for a compact vehicle in the U.S. You will certainly find more refinement in terms of the cabin noise in something like a Camry or an Accord hybrid than in this, even though the price tag of this is actually above a decent number of Camry Hybrid trims.
Fuel economy is a bit difficult to define, but even driving it hard, it was one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles we have ever tested, averaging 3.1 miles per kWh. That’s even after flooring it pretty much everywhere all day. Inn hybrid mode, we saw over 45 mpg. Obviously, for our official fuel economy tests scores, you should wait until we get this at home, but it’s pretty logical that in steady state highway driving, there’s not going to be a huge difference between this and the regular Prius. As such, expect 50 miles per gallon out on the open highway as long as you keep your speeds in check. A perennial benefit of this kind of hybrid system is that fuel economy is still excellent at higher speeds.

Initial Verdict

Toyota has something truly special here with the third-generation Prius plug-in hybrid, and has priced it quite aggressively to match. We never thought the statement would cross our keyboards, but this Prius is the craziest combination of features. 0 to 60 like a Civic Si, fuel economy like a Prius (quite naturally), electric range like you’d expect out of someone else’s plug-in hybrid. Because Toyota has been really dedicated to very short range plug-in hybrids, that is very rational on a resource utilization front and of course, a fuel efficiency front.

Available this Summer, the base SE trim with the highest fuel economy will cost about $5,000 more than the Prius Hybrid. Keeping in mind that all-wheel drive is not available on any trim, that base trim starts at $32,350, while the XSE bumps that up to $35,600, while the fully-loaded XSE Premium trim comes in at $39,170. The latter two can go a little higher with some options and packages, but in general, these prices are lower than we had originally expected for the fastest and sexiest Prius ever. Should you go with the Prime over the regular Prius? That depends on whether you are willing to charge your Prius with a plug and whether you prefer to have all-wheel drive. Unfortunately, you can’t have both, but you can rest assured that no matter which way you go, you’ll be driving the gold standard in hybrids today.

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