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30 Minute Review: Toyota Prius Prime

|Includes: Toyota Motor Corporation (TM)

This article was first published on or about May 30, 2017, on my Seeking Alpha Marketplace site, where subscribers get early access to many of my articles. You can view these articles here: https://seekingalpha.com/author/anton-wahlman/premium-articles

The Prime is the plug-in hybrid version of the Prius. It's been in the U.S. market since November 2016, less than a year after the "regular" all-new Prius.

Starting at only $27,985, depending on your tax situation, you could get the Prime for even less than the regular Prius. That's because if is eligible for a Federal tax credit of $4,500. That takes the price down to $23,485. That's already lower than the $24,360 for the regular Prius. State incentives such as $1,500 in California can make that difference even wider, in the Prime's favor.

That makes the Prime a no-brainer, right? Well, not exactly. You lose the 3rd seat in the back, and a little bit of luggage space. You can either live with those two things, or you can't.

I drove the Prius Prime right before the Kia Niro. Yes, the Prime isn't the direct comparison to the current non-plug-in Niro, but close enough for some purposes.

For all of the "on paper" similarity between the Prius and the Niro, these two cars feel very different. Getting into the car is a very different experience, for starters.

Whereas in the Prius, you sit extremely low, and the seat is soft, the Niro has you sitting up high, and its seat is harder and flatter. It's more a matter of taste than anything else. I like the "feel" of the Prius, but if I were older/stiffer or had to get in and out of the car more often, I would prefer the Niro instead.

The interior is not a close call. The Kia Niro is vastly superior to the Prius. It looks better, is easier to use, and has much more features. For example, the seats are cooled and the infotainment system has Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CarPlay and Android (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Auto. These may be decisive reasons to buy, for many consumers.

The big touchscreen that comes in the two higher Prime trim levels is not any good. It's not pleasant to look at, it doesn't have the right features (see Apple CarPlay and Android Auto again), and it's not easy to use. Better go back to the drawing board here, Toyota. For the buyer, I recommend sticking with the base version of the Prime, so that you don't have to pay for this sub-par screen.

Driving the cars is also noticeably different. The Prius is a lot softer, but still has an amazing feel from the chassis and steering. Combined with the extremely low seating position and the soft seats, it makes for a dramatically surprising sporty driving feel. It's simply a tremendous pleasure to toss the Prius around in the twisties. Has anyone said that about any previous Prius? I think not.

The Kia handles itself well, but simply cannot match the Prius here. That should not be a major reason for most people to avoid the Niro, but it's noteworthy.

Real-world observed fuel economy was somewhat inconclusive. I had driven the Prius before, and when I don't charge the battery, I can still get between 50 MPG and 60 MPG in almost all conditions. In the Niro, my real-world results barely exceeded 40 MPG. That's still very good, but let's not kid ourselves here: The Prius remains the fuel economy King.

And yes, I want and need more time with the Niro to sort out the fuel economy over several days of real-world use. Keep in mind that there is also a different between the loaded Touring trim of the Niro, and the lesser versions that come with less aggressive tires. You should expect at least 5-6 MPG better in the non-Touring versions.

The best thing about the Prime is of course that it now has a decent 25 mile electric range, and that it's relatively easy to keep yourself in all-electric mode. Of course you will exit EV mode if you floor the accelerator, but unlike in some other plug-in hybrids, you have to try a lot harder in the Prius Prime -- and that's a good thing. Also, if you drive the Prime hard, you won't get 25 miles of range, but that only stands to reason.

The engine-transmission interaction also seems smoother in the Prius than in the Niro. The Niro isn't bad by any means, but it just can't match the ultimate in hybrid hand-off in the Prius drivetrain.

It's obviously not totally fair to compare the Kia Niro with the plug-in Toyota Prius Prime. One is a plug-in that also comes with $4,500 in Federal tax credits and any applicable state incentives. But other than that, the choice really comes down to:

  1. Do you prefer to sit very high up, or very low down?

  2. Do you value sporty car cornering?

  3. Do you care about getting 50-60 MPG instead of 40-50 MPG?

  4. How do you feel about the exterior styling?

  5. Do you value Kia's superior interior?

  6. Are Android Auto and Apple CarPlay of importance?

The answers to those questions will determine the Prius vs Niro choice. There is no objective answer is to which one is the best. I would probably go with the Niro myself, mostly because of Android Auto, but I could argue it either way. If you live in a hot climate, cooled front seats may alone seal a purchase decision in favor of the Niro.

Sales of the Kia Niro started in late January 2017, and is now running around 3,000 units per month. That means 36,000 per year. That's Kia's "baseline" expectations for Niro sales in the U.S. market. It might end up being more. Details on this to be found in this great interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V59AwyQVPPY

In contrast, sales of all Prius variants in the U.S. combined are running approximately 3x as high as Niro sales. That's down a lot from previous year Prius sales. One could also argue that if the Niro "already" is selling at a 1/3rd rate of the Prius, that's pretty good under any circumstance.

The other comparison for the Prius Prime is against the Chevrolet (NYSE:GM) Volt and the Audi A3 eTron in the U.S. (Europe also has the VW Golf GTE). The Prius Prime can't match the Volt in terms of power, range or a 3rd person sitting in the back seat. On the other hand, the Prius is more comfortable for two people sitting in the back seat.

Against the Audi A3 eTron (and VW Golf GTE), the Prius suffers in the back seat and the driver cockpit. However, it has better electric range.

The next challenge for the Prius Prime is when the Kia Niro and Hyundai Ioniq become available in their plug-in hybrid (PHEV) versions. That should happen before the end of calendar year 2017. Those will be very much head-to-head competitors, and they will both have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay -- at a far lower price than the Audi A3 eTron.

Disclosure: I am/we are long GM, F, GOOGL.

Additional disclosure: At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was long GOOGL, GM and F. However, positions can change at any time. The author regularly attends new vehicle launches, press conferences and equivalent, hosted by most major automakers. Toyota provided the car for review.