Let's skip right past the engine specs on this one and the road handling--the 2017 Toyota Prius Prime Advanced is a smart budget car that costs $33,100 (the base price is $27,100) and provides both battery power and a gas engine. It's a bit like driving an Android phone around, and that's not intended as a criticism. Packed with features, it's a car you might consider if you love  digital technology and innovations that are not necessarily related to driving but do help you feel safe and connected on the road.

Unlike the iPhone, Android is a bit more practical and customizable. You could say a Samsung phone running Android is willing to take more risks, especially in terms of battery saving-tech and allowing more unusual apps into the ecosystem. In the same way, it's a surprising how the Prius Prime Advanced is essentially an affordable entry-level car, but has features that mirror what you might find in a Mercedes-Benz or Lexus.

I first noticed this "risk taking" in how Toyota added some gamification. The Prius Prime gives you a score for how you're driving, rated out of 100. For example, if you constantly floor it and leave the car running when you're stopped, your score will hover around the 50s or 60s. If you use Eco mode instead of Normal or Power, ease off the accelerator gently, and brake longer (which regenerates battery power for the electric motor), your score will go up. During my test, I started to plug in the car at night--fully charged, it runs for about 25 miles in EV mode. My score went up significantly after that.

Another interesting perk? The Prius Prime knew when I was driving too long or moving around a little in the lane. (In truth, I wasn't tired at all, I was testing the lane-keeping tech.) In the dash and the HUD (or head-up display, which appears in the windshield), a coffee-cup icon appeared with a note suggesting to take a break.

The Prius has many other safety features, almost too many to count, like adaptive cruise (adjusting your speed for the vehicle in front of you) and collision detection (it stopped the car automatically and alerted me to brake just about every time I drove into my garage). It's surprising, in the same way a lower-cost Android phone is surprising compared to the spendy iPhone, because you usually don't see these features in an entry-level car. The Prius Prime is not intended for people who love to hear the roar of an engine and race around town; it has a 121-horsepower engine. But it would appeal to someone who wants to benefit from tech advancements and not pay through the nose for them.

The Prius is about the same size and price as the  2018 Nissan Leaf, which lasts 151 miles on one charge and is an all-electric. The style, comfort, ride, and feel of both cars (not to mention the price--the Leaf costs $29,990) is quite similar, and you may find yourself trying to charge the Prime just as often. In my test, I looked for charging stations whenever I went shopping or to a coffee-shop. In one case, I found one that charges $1.00 for a two-hour charge. I did the math, and realized--for the 25 miles of EV driving, that was not exactly a stellar arrangement, even if it could help save the planet. I still charged up.

Whether you like that babysitting for this plug-in hybrid is really a matter of personal preference. I didn't mind, but I could see if you owned the car you might not like it every day for years. Interestingly, the charge time is not as long as I suspected--it took only about five hours, and there's a handy display by the windshield that shows--not unlike an Android phone--the current charge level. On a 240V charger--the kind you'll find at shopping malls--you can top off the Prius Prime in about two hours. 

Overall, you'll enjoy about 400-500 miles of driving when you charge occasionally; the lane-keeping tech, reminders to rest, and gamification features are surprising for an entry-level car. I recommend it if you love digital feedback; not as much if you want to win any races at the track or burn past other drivers in your morning commute.          

Published on: Feb 14, 2018