Toyota’s Prius Prime, which debuted at the New York International Auto Show on March 23, isn’t strictly speaking a new model but it does represent a fresh approach by Toyota to the plug-in hybrid market – an approach driven in part, perhaps, by competitors such as the Chevrolet Volt and Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid.

The previous-generation Prius Plug-in (PHV) seemed like a bit of an afterthought, with a geeky name, meagre electric-only range, identical styling to the regular Prius Liftback, and sales in the U.S. restricted to only 15 states. The Prius Prime, on the other hand, gets all sorts of improvements to go with its easy-to-remember new name: these include a near doubling of its electric-only range, a distinctive visual identity, and sales opened up to all 50 US states (it’s always been available nation-wide in Canada).

The Prime is the second generation of Toyota’s plug-in Prius, and it’s based on the newly redesigned fourth-generation Prius Liftback. Styling-wise, the Prime gets distinctive (dare we say better looking?) front and rear treatments to distinguish it from its non-plug-in Liftback stablemate. At the front, a blacked out centre section combines with sleeker, squared-off quad-LED headlights and deep creases to give the car an edgy look, while at the back a wraparound LED taillight design is built into the spoiler, giving the Prime a unique nighttime signature.

Overall the Prime is 60 mm longer, 15 mm wider and 22 mm lower than the outgoing Prius PHV. Like the fourth-generation Prius Liftback it has a new independent double-wishbone rear suspension and a lower centre of gravity that together provide improved driving dynamics compared to the previous-generation models. Weight-saving measures include high-tensile steel in the main body structure, an aluminum hood and a carbon-fibre rear hatch.

Mechanically, the Prime will continue to use the same 1.8L Atkinson cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine and CVT transmission as the regular Prius Liftback. Compared to the previous-generation PHV, however, the Prime has a Toyota-first dual motor generator drive system that can engage both the electric drive motor and the generator for driving force, improving acceleration. It also gets a redesigned 8.8 kW-hour lithium-ion battery for increased electric-only range, up from a paltry 20 km to a claimed 35 km.

The improved electric-only range, according to Toyota Division Group VP and general manager Bill Fay, is enough to get to and from work without using the gasoline engine for about 50 percent of U.S. commuters. For drivers who can charge their vehicles at work, the number who can commute fossil-fuel free jumps to 80 percent. To make charging easy, the Prime has been designed to charge from a standard 120V outlet in about 5.5 hours using no special equipment beyond a supplied charging charging cord. Access to a 240V outlet cuts the charge time in half.

To keep EV mode truly fossil-fuel free, the Prime’s drivetrain has been recalibrated to stay electric-only even under full acceleration while in EV mode, provided there’s sufficient battery charge. This is unlike the previous Prius PHV, which would activate the gasoline engine while in EV mode to help with hard acceleration. Top speed in EV mode is 135 km/h, and Toyota is projecting a combined equivalent fuel consumption rating of 1.96 Le/100km or better. When the Prime runs out of initial plug-in charge it reverts to driving pretty much exactly like a standard Prius Liftback, and combined range with a full tank of gas (43L) is 965 km.

Inside, the Prime is distinguished from non-plug in Liftbacks by a variety of additional premium touches and exclusive tech features, including an available 11.6-inch HD infotainment screen, JBL audio system, head-up display, parking assist, blind spot monitor, and Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of collision avoidance technologies comprising pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist and dynamic radar cruise control.

The Prius Prime will be arriving in Canadian dealerships in the late fall as a 2017 model.

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