Can Toyota's New Plug-In Prius Peel Off Impatient Tesla Customers Waiting For Model 3?

Cheaper and more fuel efficient than the old one, Toyota's new Prius plug-in hybrid is providing would-be buyers of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in and all-electric Tesla Model 3 with a credible alternative.

At $27,100 (plus about $4,500 in federal tax credits), the 2017 Prius Prime is $6,000 cheaper than the Volt and $3,000 less than the old Prius plug-in (after tax credits). Toyota says the Prius Prime’s total range is about 640 miles, compared with the Volt’s 420 miles, when fully charged and gassed upBut the Prime's powertrain advantages vis a vis Detroit end there: the Volt still gets 53 miles – more than twice as many as the Prius Prime’s 25 miles – on a charge.

Toyota's rollout plans for the Prime also suggest the Japanese automaker is ready to spar with the Volt and Tesla's hotly-anticipated sub-$35,000 Model 3. Like the 2017 Volt, the Prius' new plug-in will be available in all 50 states when it goes on sale later this year. “Nationwide selling may combat Tesla, which has momentum with over $15 billion of Model 3 orders,” said David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar. “Toyota may want to snag some of those customers who are not willing to wait until their Model 3 order is filled in either late 2017 or even 2018.”

 

The Prius Prime felt surprisingly sturdy and agile when I drove it across the open roads and through the twisty canyons of Ojai, Calif. last month. Its performance gets a boost from its carbon fiber rear hatch, which shaves weight from the back, and its still-boxy but no longer bug-like silhouette. Longer, lower, and wider than the first-generation Prius plug-in, the four-seater sedan also has more headroom due to its lower seating position.

Perhaps best of all, the Prime's profile signals a departure from the Prius' notorious ugly duckling days. It's sleeker and more chiseled, owing in part to its longer front and rear overhangs. It's got more personality, with new, wide-set LED taillights welcoming the plug-in to the modern age.

The Prime, which comes in three trims, has a Tesla-like, 11.6-inch center screen (the base model's is seven inches) that lends the car a premium feel absent from previous Priuses. Toyota’s Safety Sense package, which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic braking as well as lane departure alert with steering assist, comes standard. However, tech enthusiasts will be disappointed to learn that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are not yet available.

Toyota now sells 13 hybrid models, with the Prius representing 70% of hybrids sold in the U.S. The rollout for the new plug-in seems strategic, Whiston said. “It’s time to see how much demand there is for electrified vehicles, plus I imagine Toyota thinks gas won’t be cheap forever so now is the time to educate consumers about plug-in hybrids.”