Today’s all-electric cars have made great strides toward everyday usability, with rapidly growing ranges.
Even the cheapest models like the Nissan Leaf can now go 150 miles per charge, while the famous Teslas — along with a growing number of other electric vehicles — manage well over 200 miles.
But if you’re not ready for an all-electric lifestyle, we’ve repeatedly recommended several plug-in hybrid vehicles. These vehicles have a limited all-electric range, but they also have a gasoline engine on board that ensures you’ll always get where you need to go.
One of our favorite plug-in hybrids is the Toyota Prius Prime, and it’s newly upgraded for the 2020 model year. The Prius Prime takes the popular Prius hybrid and fits in a larger battery, which you can charge up from the electric grid to achieve an EPA-estimated 25 miles of gas-free driving at a time. Then once the range is used up, you still get the 50-plus miles per gallon of a standard Prius, and you can refuel it in a couple of minutes at any gas station.
What’s more, the Prius Prime starts at $28,705, which is only about $3,500 more than the standard Prius. Factor in the Prime’s $4,502 federal tax credit, and that’s a net advantage to the plug-in hybrid. And in a plug-in vehicle, Maryland buyers can use the state’s HOV lanes even without passengers.
For the 2020 model year, Toyota has removed one reason some buyers had avoided the Prime. The company redesigned the rear seat area to fit a fifth passenger, whereas the Prius’s plug-in version previously had no center-rear position and could hold only four people.
The primary remaining limitation is that the bigger battery eats into some of the Prius Prime’s cargo space, though this five-door hatchback is still decently roomy. It has 20 cubic feet (bigger than most sedans’ trunks) versus 25 cubic feet in the standard Prius.
The Prius Prime still lacks the non-plug-in Prius’s newly introduced all-wheel-drive option, though; for all-weather plug-in capability, Toyota fans will need to wait for the 2021 RAV4 Prime that’s due out in a few months.
Besides these slight drawbacks, the Prime is distinguished from the standard Prius in positive ways. During a weeklong test, we averaged just under the EPA’s 25-mile range estimate but got as high as 29 miles. That’s not going to challenge a Tesla, but it’s enough to get from Rockville to downtown Washington and back. And the Prius Prime’s range suffers on open highways and improves in stop-and-go conditions — perfect for that drive into town and back unless you commute during a time with light traffic, like 2 a.m.
Recharging the Prius Prime’s battery takes just 5.5 hours on a regular household outlet — nearly five miles of charge per hour — and it’s twice as fast if you use a dedicated car charger. Each charge costs about 70 cents at Pepco’s current residential rate of about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Once their range drains up, many of today’s plug-in hybrids are only moderately efficient. Not the Prius Prime. Because of its bigger battery, it sometimes gets even better mileage than the regular Prius. That’s because even non-plug-in hybrids generate some electricity on the go, with their batteries recharged by the gasoline engine and by braking friction energy.
Thanks to the assist from its self-generated electricity, the tested Prius Prime averaged more than 60 mpg even after its electric charge from the grid drained up and 147 mpg in total, factoring in its electricity usage. Buyers who typically drive less than 25 miles at a time will rarely, if ever, use any gasoline at all.
As has been the case since the first Prius debuted, the Prime’s aesthetics are divisive. Its headlights and taillights are slimmer than the standard Prius’s, and most critics have preferred this look.
But it’s still aggressively futuristic both inside and out. The interior’s ergonomics are also unusual, with a center-mounted digital speedometer and a stubby electronic gear selector. Last year’s white plastic cabin trim is gone, replaced with more muted black.
The top-of-the-line Limited model we tested has a huge 11.6-inch vertical touchscreen in the dashboard, replacing most hard buttons and knobs. The other trim levels have a smaller screen but superior ergonomics, especially after a new upgrade this year. Apple CarPlay integration for iPhones is also new for 2020, but unlike some Toyotas, the equivalent Android Auto for other smartphones isn’t yet available.
And like every other Prius model in history, the Prius Prime benefits from a gentle touch at the accelerator. Floor it, and you’ll wake up the harsh, noisy gasoline engine — and you still won’t get the fantastic acceleration of all-electric sports sedans like the Tesla Model 3, or even a smooth and peppy Honda Civic economy sedan. Handling has improved over the years, though still not to performance-car levels.
The Prius Prime’s closest competitors are plug-in hybrid versions of the less roomy but more conventionally styled Hyundai Ioniq and its slightly roomier, slightly less efficient Kia Niro cousin. The three vehicles match up well on paper and are all worth consideration.
If you’re willing to pay a bit more for nearly twice as much all-electric range per charge, the Honda Clarity midsize sedan is another excellent choice.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.