Are You Pious Enough for the 2017 Prius Prime?
Toyota introduced the Prius in 1997. It was the first vehicle to have real success selling as a viable hybrid electric driving machine and led the way for the brand to sell more than 10 million hybrid vehicles since then.
Tesla launched its sexy Model S in 2012 at a press conference more on the level of a rock concert.
The two couldn’t look more different. Since their inception, other competitors (Chevy Volt, Audi A3 Sportback e-tron) have entered the market between them. But the Prius directly influenced the Model S, paving the way for American consumers to accept the idea of a four-door electric sedan. By the time Tesla arrived, Americans had been primed for a good-looking green-energy alternative.
The dichotomy remains: Toyota Prius and Tesla Model S represent the two primary, polarized philosophies about what a green car should be. It’s Asceticism vs. Prestige.
The 2017 Prius Prime I drove last week kept that contrast in stark light. It’s a solid car: unpretentious, virtuous, and serviceable—which is how its makers are marketing it. But the wild fan base for the existing Tesla models (and the eager anticipation for the lower-priced Model 3, set to roll out this year) put the Prius in an entirely different context from when it premiered as an industry pioneer two decades ago. I thought it was worth taking a look at this new offering as it’s framed by its similarly game-changing, all-electric fancier cousin—the Tesla Model S.
Pretty vs. “Different”
The Prius Prime I drove is all-new for 2017. It gets its name because it has a larger battery than the regular Prius (more on that later), and its carbon-fiber hatchback is built in the same plant in Japan where Toyota makes the LFA supercar. It’s the most advanced Prius available on the market. But those promising data points don’t result in the long, graceful curves; sporty, large wheels; or refined roofline of the Model S. Instead, we have a lesson in nerd couture.
This is by design, of course. While anyone can look at a Model S and believe it’s a “regular” luxury sedan, the Prime insists upon radical differentiation. Rather than blending in, electrification by Toyota necessitates notification, like a priest wearing a collar.
The rear “dual-wave” glass hatchback gate is the most distinctive part of the Prius Prime: It has long red rear lights wrapped from one side to the other, curled around a black void of plastic at the center. This is a significant change from the standard Prius, which has rear lights set on each side of the car rather than forming a full spoiler across the back. You may have to look at it twice to realize it’s a Prius (but on that second glance, you’ll know).
Elsewhere, the Prius Prime comes standard with 15-inch alloy wheels and quad LED headlights along the nose (LED fog lights are optional), while multiple edges and what Toyota calls “side body fins” jut out from apparently random points along the sides and back. They’re to help the Prius “slip through the air,” according to Toyota, though I’m skeptical about how oblong ventricles help airflow. Letting your eye graze the car from front to rear is a jumpy ride.
In short: This is still not a subtle, laid-back car à la Model S. It’s the quirky quant who’s too direct in casual social situations. Toyota has decided to stick to its guns here and not compete in the broader game of making every sedan and SUV look the same.
The Numbers Don’t Compare
The front-wheel-drive Prius Prime Premium I drove will hit 60 miles per hour in 10.6 seconds and do electric-only mode for nearly 25 miles. Total driving range is 640 miles. (Two other variants, Prime Plus and Prime Advanced, come with the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and 8.8-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery platform as the Premium. The Prime family comes with increased electric-only driving range, more powerful electric motors, and enhanced fuel efficiency over the standard Prius models.)
By comparison, the rear-wheel-drive Model S 60 hits 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. It gets 219 miles in 60kWh electric-only range, which is the only range it has, since it doesn’t have an engine and doesn’t use gasoline. Charging time takes roughly eight hours for a full charge on a 48-amp charger, though it can be faster using a supercharger.
Admittedly, these numbers don’t help us compare the two cars, since the $30,000 Toyota Prius Prime is a hybrid that uses gasoline and electricity, while the $68,000 Tesla Model S 60 uses only electric.
But Is Convenience King?
The Tesla is a better driver, no question. It has instant, massive torque; minute steering; a direct power line of acceleration; and a true sports car feel. It competes directly with Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. The Prius, on the other hand, shares the metallic steering, abrupt brakes, and sleepy gas pedals of many of its peer-priced hybrids.
But the Prius offers more flexibility, bar none. It’s a better car for someone who can’t predict what they’ll be doing—or where they’ll be going—next week. You don’t need to charge it if you don’t want to. And if you do want to charge it, the process takes two hours.
With Tesla, you may find yourself killing time in a random, out-of-the-way parking lot for hours while you wait for a charge. (It’s happened to me.) And although Tesla certainly comes with the cachet of an industry disrupter, there’s something to be said for going with the industry standard.
Toyota is an 80-year-old company formed by an esteemed family in an ancient culture known for reserve and attention to detail. Its factory processes are the stuff that management consultants dream of. Toyota sold more than 100,000 Prius badges in the U.S. last year and almost 2.5 million vehicles total. Tesla, meanwhile, produced a little more than 83,000 vehicles in the same time period.
As the big corporation, Toyota brings the strength of a massive dealer network, a maintenance system, and decades of prowess. As the renegade brand, Tesla threw out that model altogether, favoring special retailers placed in urban hot spots and a single mother ship in Hawthorne, Calif.
For most families, a car’s looks are a luxury that can figure only lightly into the calculations involved in buying a vehicle for day-to-day use. So the $30,000 difference in price likely rules out the Tesla for many people looking at the Prius Prime. But the light upgrades to the car’s look and drive quality show Toyota has a strategy for this car that’s been largely unaffected by the enthusiasm for the swankier Tesla.
And for those who care about convenience with a splash of green-car piety, that’s a good thing.