2023-24 Toyota Prius Prime XSE
Toyota Reinvents The Prius
The new Toyota Prius Prime represents the state of the art in production hybrid cars. If you want an electrified car without the range limitations of going pure EV, the new Toyota Prius Prime is as good as it gets today.
By Roy Nakano
Wed, Jul 19, 2023 12:24 AM PST
Featured Image: Toyota pulls out all the stops for its latest and greatest Prius Prime plug-in hybrid.
(all images by the author unless otherwise indicated)
Right about the time the breakthrough second-generation Toyota Prius reached these shores in the fall of 2003, I was attending the Motor Press Guild’s keynote presentation for the LA Auto Show, featuring then General Motors' Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Someone asked him about Toyota’s hybrid Prius. “There’s no business case for hybrid cars,” was his dismissive reply. Of course, the Prius then proceeded to devour domestic car sales, gathering virtually all of the important automotive awards along the way.
It was a familiar and often repeated story from the pages of automotive history. An outlier is underestimated. By the time the establishment realizes what is transpiring, it’s a day late and a dollar short. GM didn’t know what hit them. It wasn’t just the sales upheaval; it was the reputation that Toyota garnered with the Prius.
Two years after the Motor Press Guild event, Bob Lutz admitted GM missed the mark on hybrid marketing. “We business-cased it, took a hard, analytical look and thought the engineering and investment were irresponsible vis-a-vis our shareholders. We failed to appreciate what Toyota has basically treated as an advertising expense.”
In other words, while hybrids were not sufficiently profitable (at the time), the Prius was terrific public relations for Toyota. It made consumers perceive Toyota as a company helping to save the planet. Said Lutz, "Toyota very cleverly has used hybrids to gain an improved perception of the brand."
That was then.
But The Times, They Are A-Changing
As the years went by, the Prius continued its role as the preeminent hybrid vehicle. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s famous line, the order was rapidly fading - and the first one then could later be last. A new outlier called Tesla was parading the virtues of going all-electric.
Toyota’s response was not unreasonable. Its CEO at the time, Akio Toyoda, cautioned putting the sustainability eggs all in one basket. “Everything is going to be up to the customers to decide,” he said through a translator during a media panel a day after addressing its dealers at an annual conference in Las Vegas. The company reasoned that not everyone in the world is embracing battery electric vehicles, in view of the high cost of EVs as well as a lack of infrastructure. For this reason, Toyota says its sustainability strategy includes hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in addition to battery electric vehicles.
Some environmental groups came down pretty hard on Toyota’s stance. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace were among them, the latter ranking Toyota at the bottom of its auto-industry de-carbonization ratings for two years straight. Some of Toyota’s own investors also expressed concern that the company’s candid assessment is leaving the impression with the public the company is less than fully committed to sustainability.
But there have been a number of announcements coming from Toyota’s front office to indicate otherwise, including major management changes, an announcement to launch an NCM Li-ion battery with a 621-mile range, a 745-mile solid state battery that can recharge in a claimed 10 minutes, and several new EVs promised on their way.
And what about the hybrid electric solution toward sustainability?
This Ain’t Your Tech Buddy’s Prius Anymore
Toyota answered that question at the Los Angeles Auto Show, with the introduction of the fourth generation Prius. As LA Car’s Glenn Oyoung reported on these pages earlier, “Driven purely by its styling, the word for Prius for me was wonky. That is how I would describe the styling of the Toyota Prius, from the first generation available Stateside circa 2000 up until the most recent generation [before the current one].” (See "2023 Prius Turns Heads at LA Auto Show".) The Prius had a look that only your tech buddy could love. And the outgoing generation may have had the most offensive-looking snout of them all.
The new Prius, on the other hand, was the styling sensation of the LA Auto Show. At the event, the new version was virtually unrecognizable - not only as a Prius, but as a Toyota. There’s a bit of the Marcello Gandini-designed Alfa Romeo Carabo concept car in its profile. And the sweeping glass roof is not unlike the ones seen on Teslas. Still, it doesn’t appear to copy any existing design. It may be the best-looking Japanese car design since the Toyota 2000GT. The one that was used to pick up Sean Connery as 007 in the 1967 film, “You Only Live Twice.”
Credit for the exterior design goes to a small group of designers and modelers. The team had three exterior designers: Manabu Hirokawa, Hideaki Iida, and Mario Majdendzic. Exterior modeling credit goes to Ryo Kamata and Neoyuki Numakura. The interior of the new Prius is quite handsome, and that execution is credited to two interior designers, Tsuyoshi Oba and Yuta Nozaki, and an interior modeler, Kazuma Nakamura. The new Prius has some interesting color splashes inside, and that (along with the exterior color coordination) fell under the responsibility of a color designer, Asami Hashimoto.
Putting it all together was the responsibility of Project Chief Designer Yuji Fujiwara, who says, “With ‘the Hybrid, Reborn’ as a motto, we aimed to create a breathtaking design, something that can’t be quantified or reasoned with. Together as a team, we poured our passion into creating a cool design. More thoughts from the designers, as well as sketches and models of the car in its development can be seen on the Global Toyota site (go to “Prius Design Sketches”).
But the real game changers are the new Prime versions of the Prius.
The Primes, They Are A-Changing
The most electrified Prius of them all is the Prime, which is what Toyota calls its plug-in version of the vehicle. The first version of the plug-in Prius (based on the third-generation model) could only muster about 11 miles in pure electric mode before the internal combustion engine kicked in. The second version (based on the fourth-generation Prius) more than doubled the electric range, to 25 miles.
Still, that’s not enough to meet the recently revised California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project that requires plug-in hybrids to have an EPA range of at least 30 miles in all-electric mode. For those in California, this impacts ones ability to gain access to the relatively less crowded carpool lane, even if you didn’t have a carpool.
Toyota takes care of this problem on the latest Primes with room to spare: 39-44 miles of pure electric range is what the EPA estimate comes out to. There are three levels of Primes. The SE, XSE and XSE Premium. Curiously, it’s the least expensive SE at $32,350 SE (plus $1,095 destination charges) that gets the 44-mile rating. The fancy wheel and tire package on the XSE and XSE Premium evidently shorten the range by 5 miles. That’s enough to make you think twice about paying the extra $3-6,000 for the bells and whistles on the XSE and XSE Premium models.
The Proof Is In The Prius
So we’ve established the new Prius Prime looks good on paper and in person. It’ll check all the right boxes for a lot of people - the aforementioned carpool lane-qualifying electric range, a back-up hybrid propulsion (drive anywhere, for as long as you want so long as there’s a gas station), excellent fuel economy in hybrid mode (50 mpg in the city/47 highway), impressive acceleration (6.6 seconds 0-60 mph), the versatility of the hatchback design (20.3 cubic feet of cargo space, 26.7 with the rear seats folded down), and of course the new knockout styling job.
Getting beyond the numbers, however, the Prius feels like a different car. Having owned the second and third-generation Prius, there was always a sense that Toyota sacrificed a good deal of plushness to maximize fuel economy. The doors were a bit tinny-sounding when closing. The same was true with the hood and hatchback lid.
The new car feels heftier although its curb weight isn’t all that much more than the previous generation Prime. The interior still has ample hard plastics, but it looks quite handsome. The bright orange accents on our XSE test vehicle provide a nice contrast to the darker hues of the cabin. And with two electric motors to accompany the 2.0 liter DOHC VVT-I, the new Prius Prime is as quick from 0 to 60 mph as the all-electric Bolt EV. This represents previously unchartered waters in acceleration for the Prius.
On the road, the new Prime feels planted and hugs the corners well. It’s not sport-sedan sporty, but the handling is far better than any Prius that came before. Toyota offers a $1400 all-wheel drive option on both the plug-in and non-plug-in versions of the new Prius, which should provide added handling benefits - particularly in inclement weather conditions. Perhaps the larger 13.6 kWh electric propulsion battery pack lowers the center of gravity on the Prime and contributes to the planted, road-hugging quality. It’s not unlike an EV in this regard (and that’s a compliment).
What’s not very EV-like is the sound of the internal combustion engine that comes on every now and then, making its presence known. Many hybrid owners will recognize the familiar droning of the gas motor. It’s not quite as prominent as it once was with the earlier hybrids. And at least with the Prius, you’ll never have to worry about range anxiety and whether you’ll make it to the next charging station.
Prius Prime’s California HOV Lane Access
About the new Prius Prime’s California HOV lane access, it’s due to the car meeting the Transitional Zero Emissions Vehicle (TZEV) standards for the state’s High Occupancy Vehicle lane access requirements. So, for a fee of $22, you can apply for carpool lane access even if you’re the only person in the car. California’s current program will get you a set of green access decals good through September 30, 2026.
Hybrid Propulsion As Good As It Gets
For now, the new Toyota Prius Prime represents the state of the art in production hybrid cars. This is not to say there is no room for improvement. The pure EV mode could stand to be even better. 44 miles of pure EV range is the best available on the market today, but the second-generation plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt - discontinued in 2019 - had a pure electric range of 53 miles. The plug-in hybrid world today should be able to do better.
Another variant that begs to be considered is a sporty version of the Prius Prime. The Prime already has a combined power rating of 220 horsepower and the availability of electronic, on-demand all-wheel drive. It has the inherent goodness to offer a new category of car - a plug-in hybrid with all the sportiness of a GTI or WRX. How about it, Toyota?
In the meantime, if you want an electrified car without the range limitations of going pure EV, the new Toyota Prius Prime is as good as it gets today.
For further information on the 2023 Prius Prime, visit the Toyota site at toyota.com.
Specifications (the ones that matter)
Name of car: 2023-24 Toyota Prius Prime
Prices: $32,350 (SE), $35,600 (XSE, as tested), $39,170 (XSE Premium)
Destination charge: add $1,095 to the price
Type of vehicle: 5-door hatchback, plug-in hybrid electric
EPA fuel economy ratings
Pure electric range: 44 (SE), 39 XSE and XSE Premium
53 MPG/51 MPG (SE), 50 MPG city/47 highway (XSE and XSE Premium)
127 MPGe combined (SE), 114 MPGe (manufacturer estimate)
Total range: 600 miles (SE), 550 miles (XSE and XSE Premium)
EPA size classification: Midsize
Propulsion: Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, with 2.0-liter DOHC VVT-i four-cylinder internal combustion engine with two lithium battery-powered electric motors.
Drive configuration: Front-wheel drive (on-demand electronic all-wheel drive is a $1400 option)
0-60 mph performance: 6.6 seconds (manufacturer estimate)
Tax and cash rebate incentives (restrictions may apply)
$450 California Clean Fuel Reward Rebate
up to $750 for an additional California Clean Fuel Reward Rebate from your utility company
About The Author
Roy Nakano gave birth to LACar in the late '90s, having previously delivered LA Audio File back in the '80s. Aside from the occasional review, Roy likes to stray off the beaten automotive path: "Six Degrees of Reparations" reflected on the regretful ethical paths taken by car companies throughout history. "Traveling Through the Past and Present of the Green Book" looked at businesses that took a stand against racism and the man that wrote the book on where to find them. "Best Cars to Drive in Rush Hour Traffic" was an LACar guide published in the pre-GPS era. "In Search of the First Datsun 510 Tuner" looked at one of the milestones in the origin of import tuners.