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You can't win with Toyota's nanny car

The Prius Prime scolds you for your lead foot

Jeff Rundles //February 1, 2017//

You can't win with Toyota's nanny car

The Prius Prime scolds you for your lead foot

Jeff Rundles //February 1, 2017//


Everyone knows that the Toyota Prius became the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle available in the U.S. back in 1997, and that it gets ridiculously high gas mileage, and that it has always been a bit wonky, a bit Gorp-y, and more than a bit eco-centric, meaning that it is the top choice for those of us constantly worried about our carbon footprint.

I have driven many different Prius models over the years – there are a ton of models – and I have always found the Prius to be an efficient, even fun drive. Contrary to many opinions about hybrids, hybrids in general and the Prius in particular are zippy cars, quick around town and very nice highway cruisers. Yes, the Prius overall is a smallish car, but it has plenty of room for a five-seat sedan, and the distinctive design has added much to its acceptance and its longevity.

This new Prius, the Prius Prime, is all-Prius, drives beautifully, has the most fuel efficiency of any Prii (the official plural) in history, and will be quite familiar to any Prius lover.

But I have huge reservations.    

First, the good stuff and the details. The Prius Prime for 2017 – part of the 4th generation of the Prius – is a plug-in hybrid, and a more advance version of the one it replaced, with two electric motors that work in tandem for the most fuel efficiency, as well as extended range and features.

The new 8.8 kw lithium ion battery pack has more than double the capacity than in previous models, and the power source can be charged on a common household 120v system in about 5½ hours, or on a 240V in about 2 hours and 10 minutes. There are charging stations – 60 percent of which are free, according to Toyota – throughout Colorado and the U.S., and Toyota even offers a $100 charging credit to new owners.

Toyota has added, of course, a Prius Prime App, operated through a smart phone, that can set the charging time remotely for when electric rates are lower (middle of the night), and the app monitors the battery charge, can turn on the climate control and defroster (which can run without the car being on), locate charging stations, and even find the vehicle.

 There is also all of the modern safety stuff:   the Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Automatic Braking, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with full stop technology, and Automatic High Beams.

Of course, the Prime has a gasoline engine – a 1.8-liter four cylinder – and combined with the electric motors the horsepower is rated at 121 hp. Toyota says it has a range in EV mode – all-electric – of 25 miles, and that the combined EPA mileage estimate with gas and electric is 133 mpge. On gas alone, the Prime is rated a combined 54 mpg, which is a fantastic number.

All the technology in the car is truly amazing – and I have to be honest, I drove it for a week and still don’t know what all of the gauges and bar graphs are about. Ostensibly, there is a ton of monitoring of all this eco – charging, mileage, electric use, gas use, yada, yada, yada. There is so much going on with all of the dash lights that it is distracting, if you choose to pay attention.

But that is the problem: The Prime wants you to pay attention. At the end of each drive, a message comes up in the middle of the dash that rates your skill at e-mile-ing, that is, it rates your driving on a 0-to-100 scale for maximum efficiency.

So for instance, I once got a 52/100 with the message “Use Hybrid System Indicators to Improve.” Another time, with a rating of 34/100, the car told me “Ease accelerator use.”

Then another trip, a 44/100 effort – and on the coldest day possible – the Prime admonished me to “Try a more moderate temperature to improve.”

The best I did all week was that 52 out of 100 – and a couple of times I tried very hard to be all Gorp-y, ease up on the accelerator, turn off the heater and try and glide as much as possible. To get a higher score, one supposes, you have to be a paying member of Greenpeace.

The Prime encourages you to drive as annoyingly as possible. One presumes that after a few weeks in the car you’d start wearing Earth shoes and spouting ecological screeds.

But really, does a car need to grade you and chide you each and every time you drive to the supermarket, like some second grade teacher always trying to improve your penmanship by having you write on the chalkboard, “I will drive less aggressively, I will drive less aggressively…,” a few hundred times? This Toyota Prime doesn’t so much grade your skills as de-grade them.

What if every car did this, or a version of it? What with all of the new technology and the surround-view cameras, and the coming self-driving cars, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that your car could question the left turn you made at Downing and Alameda, or the lane change without a blinker on Colorado Blvd. If you were speeding 40 mph in a 25 mph zone, could your own car email or text and order up a ticket? Oh, gosh, I probably just gave the government another idea for revenue; shame on me.

I don’t want my car to run roughshod over me. I don’t want my car to be the second grade teacher I detested, or the nanny who was never satisfied with your performance and behavior. This Toyota Prime feels like the kind of car a judge would sentence you to drive if you had been convicted of too many traffic infractions.

Why anyone normal person would ever want one is beyond me.

For the record there are three models of the Prius Prime — Plus, Premium, and Advanced – and they begin at a base price of $27,100. My test-drive model was the Advanced, and carried a base price of $33,100. Must be a foreign nanny. They added on a few things to bring the price to $36,305. I guess there are still federal and some state tax breaks and rebates that can mitigate the cost, and of course the gas savings over time can be stunning. But I’d rather burn more gasoline and retain at least some of my dignity.

And one more thing: Every Prius has this annoying, cloying back-up beep-beep-beep when the car is in reverse, like you hear on construction equipment or fork lifts. I suppose they believe it is a safety feature that would appeal to the green-mile-ing crowd, but if the back-up-beep is such a great safety feature why isn’t it on every Toyota? It is simply pretentious, as is Prius in general and the Prius Prime in particular.

If this is the future of the automotive world, heaven help us.