Toyota (NYSE:TM) on Wednesday took the wraps off of the 2017 Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid variant of the new-for-2016 Prius sedan.
What Toyota said: Toyota said that the Prius Prime "combines an electrifying design with an even more capable electric powertrain than the previous-generation Prius Plug-in Hybrid." The company estimates that it will get an EPA rating of at least 120 MPGe -- "miles per gallon equivalent," a measure of the efficiency of plug-in vehicles -- which would be the highest rating for any plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) on the U.S. market.
In keeping with the "Prime" nameplate, the new plug-in Prius is offered with added luxury features, including an optional 11.6" touchscreen "infotainment" system that also includes a heads-up display. Toyota also promises that it will have "the same verve" as the new 2016 Prius, which the company has promoted as more fun to drive than the model it replaced.
How it stacks up: Toyota bragged that the electric-only range of the new Prius Prime was "two times" that of the last-generation Prius PHEV. But that's not saying much: The old Prius PHEV managed just 11 miles before the gasoline engine turned on. The new one will go 22 -- an improvement, but still far behind plug-in rivals such as General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Volt, which has an EPA-rated electric-only range of 53 miles.
Still, the Prius Prime won't exactly be a gas guzzler. Toyota said that its fuel economy once the battery runs out should be "equal to or better than" the regular Prius. With a full gas tank and a fully charged battery, the Prius Prime will have a range of more than 600 miles, Toyota said.
As expected from "teaser" photos released by Toyota last week, the Prius Prime has been given some styling tweaks to distinguish it visually from the regular Prius. The front end has been revamped with a look that strongly resembles Toyota's fuel-cell-powered Mirai sedan, while the rear gets striking new taillights.
Why Toyota put extra effort into the Prius Prime
Simply put, plug-in hybrids have been a tough sell in the United States. While models like the Volt have a devoted following, the technology hasn't quite managed to breakout into the mass market. And with its dismal electric-only range, the last-generation Prius PHEV only sold in tiny numbers.
With its distinctive (and edgy) styling that recalls the Mirai, Toyota may be hoping that the Prius Prime will draw green-minded buyers who are looking to make a visible statement, just as the original Prius hybrids did. Toyota officials said on Wednesday that they hope the new Prius Prime will double the sales volumes of the old PHEV model. With gasoline so cheap, I don't think the Prius Prime will light up the sales charts; but I think Toyota's goal isn't unrealistic.
What's next for the Prius Prime: The plug-in Prius Prime will arrive at U.S. Toyota dealers in "late fall" as a 2017 model, the company said.