Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: September 2, 2019
The Toyota Prius may not be synonymous with excitement or fun, but it is an exceedingly effective automotive tool that shouldn’t be swept under the rug so easily. Not only is the Prius one of the most fuel-efficient hybrids on the market but its slim footprint, accessible price point, and beginner-friendly road manners, put it well within the means of the average Joe. As such, over the years the Prius has defined what a hybrid vehicle is and what they can be capable of in low-speed urban environments, becoming the gold standard for environment-conscious mobility.
To each his own, but I think the Prius is a rather handsome looking appliance, and while it doesn’t have the aesthetics to please the likes of Ian Callum or Pininfarina, it’s a far cry from what the first wave of oddball slap-me-in-the-face Prius’ used to look like. It may not “get the chicks” so to speak, but it will make you look like a climate change hero by going green. And unlike the standard Prius, the Prius Prime is a beefed up plug-in hybrid (PHEV) variant that sits at the top of the hierarchy - think Amazon Prime and Optimus Prime. It utilizes a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine paired with an electric motor, lithium-ion battery, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The Prime allows you to drive in both hybrid or fully-electric mode at any speed (given enough battery charge), not just under 50 km/h like the standard Prius, with a substantial 40 km electricity-only range. That means if you need a recharge, you can either plug in it, gas it up, or do both. The choice of commodity is up to you, and when both fuel and electricity is filled to the top, this commuting workhorse has a capable range of 1,035 kilometres. Find me another hybrid, let alone a diesel for that matter, that even comes close to that.
While 40 kms is Toyota’s claim, real world range is always different, and we achieved 32 kms of pure city zero-emission driving, which is already more than most plug-in vehicles like the BMW 330e xDrive, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, and Volvo’s range of T8 vehicles. And the best part is, unlike pure EVs, there is absolutely zero range anxiety with this PHEV’s two modes of propulsion. Once you’ve run out of juice, the Prime essentially turns back into the regular hybrid Prius. And when that battery is running dry, you can simply plug it into a standard 120V household socket and give it 5 hrs and 30 minutes for a full charge. If you purchase a Level 2 (240V) charger, that time is cut in half.
The Prius Prime’s learning curve, even when coming from a conventional vehicle, is next to nothing, with smooth and seamless transitions between combustion and electricity. You would be hard pressed to detect when the engine switches on, especially if the radio is at a decent volume. It’s a brilliant city car with direct steering and agile maneuverability, and does not require much effort from the driver even during tight parking jaunts. Acceleration is nothing to write home about with its measly 121 hp output but it feels faster than the numbers suggest due to the instantaneous thrust provided by those electric motors. It’s more than enough for the average driver to quickly hop on a green light to overtake the incoming bus. The Prime also utilizes a smooth regenerative brake pedal that does not feel spongy or mushy like other hybrids. You can switch the gear knob to the B position to ramp up the regenerative braking force as well, abruptly pulling the Prius to a stop every time you lift off the gas pedal. Making smooth throttle and braking inputs in this mode takes some practice - best not to have anyone else in the car while you do to save your car mats from being covered with that morning’s breakfast.
The Prius Prime is clearly not as engaging on the road as its EV compatriots like the Chevrolet Bolt or Jaguar I-Pace, but the Prius ebbs and flows around tight streets without breaking a sweat. That said, push too hard at speeds the Prius is not accustomed to - anything over 60 km/h - and holy Batman body roll, you best be prepared to find that grab handle. Otherwise, the ride is fairly standard for a compact hatchback, with nothing that I would call taxing or game changing. It’s exactly what you would expect from a Toyota: not Lexus-comfortable but not Civic Type R-levels of arthritic infliction.
New for the 2020 Prius Prime is a fifth seat in the rear (where there used to be a fixed armrest with cupholders) to extend its passenger carrying capabilities, standard Apple CarPlay and Sirius XM radio, two more USB ports in the rear cabin, black interior accents, a new sun visor extender, and relocation of the heated front seat buttons for easier reach. The interior layout can be confusing and unconventional for first-time Prius owners, as there is no instrument cluster directly in front of the driver. Instead, all the screens have been relocated to the center of the dashboard where it displays the speed, driving mode, fuel range, and the like. While odd and bare at first, it does make the cabin appear more symmetrical and simplistic, befitting of the Prius’ fuel-saving and minimalistic mission. It also opens up the front windshield for even better visibility. The cabin layout is no work of art, but it sure is ergonomically sound.
Can’t say the same about that awkward centrally-mounted gear shifter however, which reminds me of an arcade joystick. The massive tablet-like touchscreen that comes as part of the Prius Prime Upgrade trim takes up the majority of cabin real estate, with hard plastic shortcut buttons running along each side. And while they are not real buttons, the grooves surrounding the borders make it easy to find when keeping both eyes on the road ahead. The display itself is colourful and vibrant, but even on maximum brightness, it can wash out easily with heavy, direct sunlight. That said, the maps view is beautiful, crisp, and honestly makes this a perfect taxi, ride-sharing, or Uber platform. Though this new five-seater has plenty of room in both the front and rear cabins, even for a six-footer, storage space does take a hit, with the Prime’s larger battery bringing the trunk floor bed up to thigh level. There is still enough room for two suitcases but just barely. Such is the sacrifice for more range and zero-emission driving.
The starting price for the Prius Prime starts at $32,990, which is $4,440 more than the standard hybrid Prius, the latter of which is also available with electric all-wheel drive (AWD-e). The Prime comes with a plentiful list of standard equipment such as a heated steering wheel, backup camera, push button start, Bluetooth connectivity, Sirius XM radio, Apple CarPlay, heated door mirrors, automatic climate control, LED daytime running lights, and Toyota Safety Sense, a suite of driver and safety assistance features that include lane departure warning, pre-collision system, and radar cruise control.
The Prius Prime Upgrade, which costs just $2,000 more than the base model (a no brainer) adds the larger 11.6-inch touchscreen with navigation (over the standard 7-inch touchscreen), a wireless charging pad, power adjustable driver's seat, synthetic leather trimmed seats, additional keyless entry doors for the passenger side and rear hatch, and puddle lights that shine under the doorstep at night. You will have to add the $3,000 Technology Package if you want to get the blind spot monitoring, JBL premium audio system, head up display, intelligent parking assist, LED fog lamps, and rain sensing wipers.
The refreshed 2020 Toyota Prius Prime is undeniably an effective commuter tool that does exactly as advertised: to offer a fuel-efficient urban city experience with enough interior tech, connectivity, and value, to appease the virtuous angel inside all of us. Will you ever need anything more? Maybe if storage space and seven-seater passenger capability is of paramount importance. In that case, get a minivan. If not, check out the Prius Prime, one of the most competent and economical city cars we’ve ever driven. It may not be the most exciting choice, but it sure is the prime option as far as automotive appliances are concerned.
Model: 2020 Toyota Prius Prime Upgrade
Paint Type: Titanium Glow
Base Price: $34,990
Price as Tested: $37,990
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,645 / 1,760 / 1,470
Curb weight (kg): 1,530
Powertrain: 1.8-litre four-cylinder + electric motor + 8.8kWh lithium ion battery
Horsepower: 121 hp net
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD