In these uncertain times, new car buyers are under pressure to make smarter decisions than ever. One of the big ones is, stick with a fossil fuel powered vehicle or make the leap to electricity, when it's unclear when — or even if — a national public charging system will be completed?
Fortunately, a wave of new vehicles is arriving just in time to fill the gap — plug-in hybrids. Like traditional hybrids, they switch the power between a gas engine and one or more electric motors to maximize mileage. But they also have larger battery packs that deliver a certain number of miles on electricity alone when fully charged.
If recharged at home every night, most plug-in hybrids provide enough electric range for normal day-to-day driving. And they switch to conventional fuel-saving hybrid mode for longer trips, so you never have to worry about getting stranded anywhere.
It seems only right that one of the best plug-in hybrids is a version of the latest generation of the first and most influential hybrid, the Toyota Prius. Called the Prius Prime, it delivers 25 miles of driving on electricity alone on a full charge, then switches over to a hybrid mode EPA rated at 54 average miles per gallon.
There's even an all-wheel-drive version, the AWD-e, that adds a third electric motor to power the rear wheels when the front ones slip. And because the additional battery capacity is relatively small, it can be fully recharged at home in just a few hours.
To be perfectly honest, although I admired the technology, I wasn't taken by the looks and performance of the original Prius, which was introduced in America in 2003. It was oddly styled, both inside and out, as if Toyota thought owners wanted to call attention to themselves for driving a green vehicle. And its acceleration and handling was lackadaisical, at best. But it got over 50 mpg, which was the point.
The current generation, first introduced in 2015, looks and drives much more like a conventional compact car. In fact, with its sleek lines and sharp creases, it looks almost sporty. The interior is more like normal car, too, except for the odd transmission selector switch that protrudes from the dash. But even luxury cars are using switches for shifters these days, so it's only the location that's really unique.
On the road, our 2020 Prius Prime Limited drove much better than the original version. The power is delivered incredibly smoothly in both electric and hybrid modes, and there's even a Sport setting to give it a little more get up and go. The switch from electric to hybrid mode is unnoticeable, except for a slight exhaust note produced by the small gas engine when it's running.
The Prius Prime also comes with Toyota's typically generous offerings of comfort, information and safety features, even in the base LE model. Standard for 2020 are SiriusXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa, and the company's comprehensive safety package called Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P). It also comes with a futuristic 11.6-inch touchscreen with integrated navigation.
The only drawback compared to the conventional Prius is slightly reduced back seat space to allow for the larger batter pack. That makes the Prime a four seat compact, but how many compact owners ever carry three people in the back seat, anyway?
Like all hybrids, the 2020 Prius Prime is initially more expensive than similar gas compacts, with prices ranging from around $27,000 for the base LE to over $36,000 for the fully loaded Limited model. But those prices can be significantly reduced with the available $4,500 federal tax credit. In addition, Oregon offers instant rebates of up to $5,000 for plug-in hybrids (including up to more $2,500 for low income families).
Plus, like like all-electric vehicles, the plug-in hybrids saves more money when running on electricity alone because it's cheaper than gas. So if you're in the market for a new compact but wondering what fuel choice to make, the 2020 Prius Prime offers the best of both worlds.
2020 Prius Prime Limited
Base price: $27,900 ($18,400 after all incentives)
Price as tested: $36,031 ($26,531 after all incentives)
Style: Compact sedan
Drivetrain: 1.8-liter engine and two electric motors (121 hp)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
Modes: Eco, Normal, Power
EPA fuel economy: 133 MPGe/54MPG
Length: 183 inches
Weight: 3,365 to 3,375 pounds
Final assembly: Aichi, Japan
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