Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Toyota Prius Prime.
WHAT: Toyota's larger, plug-in version of its ever-expanding Prius lineup, with a four-cylinder gas engine, electric motors, and a bigger battery than the standard Prius. The Prius Prime will run up to 25 miles in electric-only mode.
WHERE: NYC to small-town Massachusetts, mostly on highways, plus around-town driving in both directions
WHEN: Winter (temperatures ranging between low-40s to below freezing, no snow)
Before the Great Self-Driving Car Panic and the five-weeks-after-a-bunny-orgy proliferation of crossovers, the Toyota Prius was the Thing That Killed Driving. That poor car ate shit for years: It ate shit from driving enthusiasts for its flaccid handling, ate shit from the Detroit loyalists for its twee foreign styling, and ate shit from various culture warrior-trolls for being a high-tech, eco-friendly darling of the liberal Hollywood elite. But for all the shit the Toyota Prius had to eat, it still managed to effectively define the hybrid car for a generation, it still became a sales juggernaut justifying its own product line, it's still around some two decades later, and it still drives like a half-full sponge.
But if you experience the Prius in its ideal environment—which includes a congested, low-speed urban hellscape like New York City, where I live—you realize that the last part doesn't matter: The Toyota Prius is a phenomenal city car, with efficient packaging, lots of visibility, and enough down-low electrified punch to triumphantly screw over some other schmuck by getting the jump on him in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which is the most important feature of any city car.
- In New York City, you're always just Some Asshole: If you drive an expensive car, you're Some Asshole in an Expensive Car; if you drive a huge SUV, you're Some Asshole in the Huge SUV; if you ride a bike, you're Some Asshole on a Bike. In the Prius, you're still Some Asshole, but you're no longer That Asshole in the Fucking Prius, like you used to be, because the veneer of elitism has worn away from the car entirely. And the new design is distinct enough that it's not obvious at a glance you're looking at a Prius.
- With the new design—meaning, with the ability to ignore the car's reputational baggage—one can judge the new Prius Prime on its aesthetic merits, and the verdict is that this car is properly goddamn ugly. It's a disingenuously aggressive, shovel-faced mash of unpleasing angles and dubious character lines. In the early 2010s, there was something distinctly futuristic about the Prius's instantly recognizable wedge-shaped design; now, it just looks like a boring car seen through a broken kaleidoscope.
- As previously mentioned, though, the packaging is admirably efficient: the Prime is bigger than the standard Prius, and all of its direct competition, but it feels tiny when it comes time to park.
- The first thing you notice is the cockpit design, which is so fundamentally odd it's like Toyota decided to do a clean-sheet rethink of the entire idea. The shifter is center-mounted, tiny, and feels like an old arcade-game controller. My car had an optional (and large) 11.6-inch vertical infotainment screen, like in a Tesla Model S—my least-favorite design feature of that car—and there's no cockpit display, which has been stacked above the infotainment setup.
- The "buttons" for the infotainment screen are slotted on either side, integrated into sleek hard plastic, and occasionally work as intended.
- The upside is that the new design feels airy, spacious, and pleasant. The seats are comfortable and meant for commuting, like everything else about the car. That's no faint praise: from an ergonomics perspective, it's hard to beat.
- Inside, it's comfortable and airy, and like its rival Honda, Toyota has mastered the Artful Plastic look—there's a lot of it in there, but it doesn't offend in and of itself, and it's all fairly well fitted together.
- Not to go knocking monocles off into various bowls of soups, but aside from nice low-end acceleration in all-electric mode, the Prius does not handle well—never has, never will. When burning electrons it's legitimately quick off the line, able to dance through the bloodsport of NYC traffic (acceleration is serviceable in Power mode and nonexistent in Eco mode), but otherwise it's a soft, imprecise wedge of rolling Jell-O that plows almost into a nose-stand under hard braking and has all the grace of a drunk hobo stumbling away from the police. This car apparently reflects Toyota's effort to improve the driving dynamics. Perhaps it succeeded, but I couldn't tell; picking between this car and its predecessor in terms of driving dynamics is like trying to choose your favorite fart.
- By some dark magic, the otherwise spongey ride roughens up quickly over bumps and bad pavement.
- In terms of in-car tech, the tablet-like infotainment screen is responsive but not noticeably quick, and the screen itself is limitedly configurable, mostly serving at any given time as one of two functional screens. As noted, the seamless buttons with haptic feedback are often difficult to use. It's a lot of real estate for limited functionality, but it will certainly whet the appetite of the gadget-obsessed.
- Geeks will not be pleased with the available infotainment features; while it has the standbys like navigation, Bluetooth audio, voice commands, and traffic and weather, the Prius Prime lacks Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and 4G LTE Wi-Fi.
- In terms of powertrain, the once-revolutionary Prius has become a workaday hybrid, with a 1.8-liter inline-four engine, electric motor and battery pack—the combined output is just 121 hp—and a CVT for added efficiency.
- The problem is, even though Toyota calls the Prius Prime its "most advanced hybrid yet," it's no longer all that efficient or capable compared to its competition. The Chevy Volt basically doubles this car's all-electric range, and the Hyundai Ioniq can claim better fuel mileage.
The Bottom Line
I started this write-up by noting that the Prius is a phenomenal city car, and that's true. Is it as lustworthy an urban vehicle as, say, the Volkswagen GTI? No—that car is a legit, hard-driving enthusiast machine, and more grown-up inside as well. But the Prius Prime is peppy enough for traffic jousting, is easy to park, will require few fill-ups, can haul a few friends and a week's worth of groceries, and—as important as anything—is a comfortable, spacious, and pleasing place to spend time. Plus, unlike the GTI, I really just wouldn't care what happened to this Prius. Dings, bumps, scrapes, the odd half-gallon of bird shit? Who cares? It's a wonderful and unsentimental tool—and at $27,995 to start, it's a cheap tool at that.
The Prius was built as an efficient, high-tech, comfortable commuter tool that thrives in congested urban environments. It's not so high-tech anymore, but it still ticks the other boxes for a couple thousand bucks under $30K. If you want driving personality, go elsewhere. If you want a reliable city car that you won't have to think much about—including at the pump—the Prius Prime should truly be considered great. As long as there's a recharging station handy.
2018 Toyota Prius Prime, By The Numbers
Price (MSRP): $27,995
Powertrain: 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine and electric motor, 121 combined horsepower; continuously-variable transmission; front-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy (MPG): 55 city / 53 highway / 54 combined
Things I'd Rather Interact With Than That Gear Selector: Alligators, ex-girlfriends, that weird scum on your tongue after a night of hard drinking.