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Why Does Anyone Buy a Toyota Prius Prime?

I track ten plug-in vehicles for my blog "My Electric Vehicle Journey" and I am astonished each month, when I see the Toyota Prius Prime sales figures. I cannot understand how it competes so well, against plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt or Ford C-Max Energy. Heck, it has even outsold the fully electric Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model X in some months, this year.


I understand the Model X is in a completely different price category, so I’ll let that go. Although the Bolt EV has 238 miles of electric range, perhaps it occasionally loses, due to the current (pun intended) lack of charging infrastructure, which limits its capability to take on a long, cross-country trip, where a hybrid is unlimited. However, its obvious competitor is the Chevy Volt and they’ve been pretty competitive, in sales, with the Volt winning four months this year, versus the Prius Prime winning in three.

Disclaimer: My household has owned/leased five Chevy Volts since 2012 and I changed careers to work for my Chevy dealer.

First, I get there’s a significant different in pricing, with the Chevy Volt starting at $34,095 and the Prius Prime at $27,995. That’s a difference of $6,100. But that’s not the whole story on pricing. The Volt’s larger 18 kWh battery pack qualifies it for the full $7,500 Federal Income Tax credit, whereas the Prius’ smaller 8.8 kWh battery only receives $4,502 of the tax credit. This reduces the price advantage, enjoyed by the Prius Prime to $3,102. If financed for 72 months at 9%, that’s a monthly payment difference of $56. That’s still a somewhat significant advantage for the Prius Prime.

But then, let’s consider performance.

Let’s start with electric range: The Volt averages 53 miles, on electricity before switching to gasoline, according to the EPA. The Prius’ average all-electric range is just 25 miles, or less than half of the Volt’s range. In real life commuting, that gives the driver of the Volt a much better shot of achieving fully electric driving. If the driver has no access to chargers, at work, that presents a problem for drivers of the Prius Prime: A U.S. Department of Transportation study, in 2003, found the average commute distance of Americans is 15 miles, one way. That means the Prius will only provide 83% of that round-trip commute on electricity, while the Volt driver would enjoy a 100% electric commute. Restated, the average commuter, driving a Prius Prime, will have to run their gas engine for part of the commute, while the Volt driver would run solely on electricity.

As it turns out, I drive the average 15 miles one way and although I drive my Volt like I stole it, I can easily commute on electricity alone, even if I run errands at lunch or after work. In fact, over the past 18 months of ownership, I have driven 96% on electricity, as I’ve taken a few out-of-town trips.

The Volt’s superior electric range wins.

On gasoline, the Prius Prime does significantly better than the Volt. On gasoline, the Prius averages 55 MPG, compared to the Volt’s 42 MPG. That’s a 31% advantage, but it is important to note that it only comes into play, during a daily commute, if the round trip is greater than 76 miles! In other words, you’d have to commute 19,760 miles, per year, to break even on fuel cost, with the Volt. That is 11,960 more miles than driven by an average U.S. commuter, going back and forth to work.

That’s how far you have to go, before the Prius Prime’s gasoline efficiency makes up for the Volt’s electric range superiority. (calculations based on gasoline at $2.27 per gallon and electricity at 11¢ per kWh).

That is well beyond the commute suffered through by the vast majority of U.S. drivers.

Although MPG and MPGe are easily quantifiable, there are other things to consider:

The Volt is said to be a five passenger vehicle, while the Prius Prime seats four. In all honesty, I’d have to call the Volt a 4-1/2 passenger car, the 1/2 representing a child in a car seat or bolster seat.

Driving performance, in my opinion, has to be a major consideration. According to Motor Trend’s tests, the Volt accelerates to 60 miles per hour in 7.5 seconds, while the Prius takes 10.2 (best case). Imagine what that means, getting on the freeway. This was the primary reason I opted for my first 2012 Volt, after test driving it and the 2012 Prius (long before there was a plug-in Prius). In a word, I felt the Prius’ performance was gutless.

Even acceleration at higher speeds, shows off the Volt’s superior performance. If traveling at 50 MPH and you need to suddenly accelerate to 70 MPH, the Volt gets there in 5.1 seconds, compared to the Prius’ 7 seconds.

Then there is styling. This is an extremely personal consideration. But honestly, unless you’re trying to make the statement, “Oh, look at me. I drive an efficient hybrid!” can you honestly say the Prius Prime looks better than the Volt?

Are these advantages worth an extra $56 per month? That’s for you to decide. Obviously, it is for me. Also see my comparison of Chevy Volt vs Bolt EV from a Volt owner's Perspective and another disclaimer about me.



Steve (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 9:57AM

My coworker just bought a Prime after looking at a Volt. His reasoning was that he couldn't fit comfortably in a Volt and he believes Toyota has better reliability than Chevy.

JohnV (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 2:24AM

In reply to by Steve (not verified)

I have not driven the new Prime but in 2012 before I bought my Volt I drove the Prius, then in 2013 I drove the PIP before buying another Volt that my wife drove. The build quality difference was blaringly obvious. The Prius was a tin can in comparison. My 2012 Volt developed a noisy CV joint after 80,000 miles but has been completely reliable otherwise needing only wiper blades, tires, and a radiator cap.

David (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 10:11AM

Toyota Prius has proven its reliability. But let's just wait until the Model 3 is out for everyone. "Why does anyone buy hybrid" will be the next question.

Prsnep (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 4:16PM

In reply to by David (not verified)

Because they're much quicker to "charge". You don't need to install a relatively expensive home-charging infrastructure. Gas stations are everywhere. And if your electricity is sourced from coal, they produce way fewer GHGs.

Barbara Funk (not verified)    August 6, 2021 - 7:36PM

In reply to by David (not verified)

Range anxiety is why hybrids will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS remain popular. I can never imagine being constrained by a 2-300 mile range when I'm the freedom of driving cross country or touring national parks desperately hoping to find an recharging station, while gas stations are everywhere. Even if a hybrid did run out of gas you can bring 5 gallons of gas to a hybrid but can you bring electricity to a empty EV battery? NO!

Vicky (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 10:15AM

Initial price and not needing a charger, and maybe the interior layout, depending on your tastes, but that's about it, for the Prius, imo. Depending on your driving habits, you may go months before using gas (not buying, using). With a Prius, you use gas every time you drive, just more efficiently, but the Volt will only use gas if you either a) exceed your range, or b) tell it to. When it does use gas, it does so efficiently, like a Prius. It is also more powerful than the Prius and is a general joy to drive. I agree that the backseat is a drawback. Volt family all the way!

Bob C (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 3:03PM

I can tell you why I chose a Prime over a Volt, even though it was much harder to get, my commute is longer than both the Volt and the Prime, so no all electric for me. And then there's the smaller gas tank and MPG of the Volt which means I have to fill up more often. The third thing is Chevy's insistence on interior color for the premier. (black or brown) and there's no way I'm going to buy any car ever again without DRCC, and only the premier has DRCC optional. I live in a hot climate, the Volt isn't suited to that color-wise! As for performance, it's not so important, after all, I drive a Prius. :)

Prsnep (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 3:31PM

"can you honestly say the Prius Prime looks better than the Volt?"

Yes. I prefer the look of the Prime. It's also more spacious. You didn't take into account efficiency of the Prius in electric mode. It'll cost you less than the Volt if your commute is less than roughly 30 miles between charges. Also, it will only take 5.5 hours to charge on a regular household outlet, saving you on an expensive upgrade if you don't already have it.

Carl J. (not verified)    August 25, 2017 - 4:28PM

Simple answer: quality. Look at consumer reports and compare first year reliability of the Volt and Prius. Enough said. Never, never buy Chevy unless you want to keep returning to your dealer. My Prime's scheduled 5,000 mile service was boring. The dealer yawned too, then he said that nothing ever breaks on the Prius Primes.

JohnV (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 2:31AM

In reply to by Carl J. (not verified)

I am curious if you compared the Volt to the Prius or you are looking at Chevrolet vehicles in general. When I looked at the reliability data for the Volt a few years ago it was stellar: on par with the best from Toyota and Honda. The same could not be said for other GM vehicles.

Bob C (not verified)    August 26, 2017 - 4:41PM

In reply to by Buzz Smith

Actually that's the point, "performance is not", and not everyone's driving "performance" needs are the same. For some people the Prime fits, for some the Volt. For me, that is outside the range of pure electric for the Volt, the Prius's gas mileage make it more efficient, and therefore, it fits my performance needs better. If the Volt had a bigger gas tank, easier charging, and a better ICE, it would fit, but it doesn't.

Spector (not verified)    August 26, 2017 - 12:51PM

Why does one prefer a Jaguar over Porsche or a Buick over a Lincoln? Difficult to quantify inside the space of a small article -- experts spend their careers analyzing such minutae. Your article, sadly, is completely biased towards the Volt. (And I own a Volt, which I love, btw.). I could care less why people buy the Prime, or even the older Prius Plug In which had even worse range and higher cost. I am just glad Toyota is selling a plug-in, low emission vehicle! This is a test for them, hopefully increasing and I am sure, improving with time. Remember Toyota has consistently rejected plug-ins and has been pushing hydrogen for its future low emission vehicles. So good for them going with some EV models instead. Chevy sold the Spark EV and the same questions were asked -- why would anyone buy such a thing given its limitations? Now we have the Bolt, which while not perfect is much better. Same with the Prius Prime. Godspeed Toyota.

Dennis (not verified)    August 28, 2017 - 7:25AM

In reply to by Buzz Smith

Remember,the fed tax credit only applys if you have underpaid your taxes! Be careful! The government will NOT send you a check for the credit! This is a bitter lesson if your not prepared. We simple stoped paying federal taxes for the rest of the year! Crazy stuff! Toyota of Chevy dealer will not tell you that!

JohnV (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 2:43AM

In reply to by Dennis (not verified)

I do not think that is quote accurate. We did get a refund check the year we took our tax credit. The catch is that you have to OWE at least as much as the credit in order to get it. They will credit your tax bill and give you a larger refund but, for example, if your total tax debt for the year is $4000 you are only going to get a $4000 credit. So it is not how much you have under or over paid it is about how much tax you owe for the year regardless of your withholding or quarterly payments.

VFanRJ (not verified)    August 26, 2017 - 10:51PM

I think it's more about buying Toyota rather than a Chevrolet. For me it was backwards, the Volt pushed me into buying my first Chevrolet. After years of renting Prius's on business trips there was simply no way I was going to own one, I view its driving experience as sub par. Conversely, I found 273 ft*lbs of torque quite alluring (today the gen II Volt is 294 ft*lbs). I also live in a mountainous areas so as I hear owners talk about their Prius losing steam in steep canyons, those are fun to drive moments in the Volt's mountain mode (although I'm not sure the gen II's larger more powerful generator even needs a mountain mode any more).

I do prefer the styling of the gen I Volt (the one I have) over the gen II, but the new one is growing on me.

john1701a (not verified)    August 27, 2017 - 11:13AM

In reply to by VFanRJ (not verified)

Mountain-Mode for Volt is just a limited version of Charge-Mode for Prime. It does not actually provide more power as implied. It simply provides an electric reserve for Volt. With Prime, you can also recharge while still getting hybrid efficiency.

Dennis Melvin (not verified)    August 26, 2017 - 11:25PM

First,I have 10,300 miles on my prime. It is a overachiever at 34.4 miles per charge most of the time! I have talked to others that are getting 35 per charge consistently. Second, this is our third Prius and it again overachieved at 61.2 if you drive around town with and drive reasonable. Third, I payed less then the 27100. We got 2000 off sticker, a thousand from Toyota and the 4500 fed credit! That's why We bought the Priu prime s over the regular Prius!

Alex Prime (not verified)    September 21, 2018 - 12:58PM

In reply to by Dennis Melvin (not verified)

I drive about 20,000 miles a year with a 60 mile a day commute between city and suburbs. In a Prius Prime. I get 60mpg on in hybrid mode, with occasional charging to maintain above-minimum charge in the traction battery. On battery only, I get 30-35 miles per charge depending on the foot.

I did not look at the Volt at all when choosing the car. I trusted Toyota quality and hybrid experience. I like the styling also.

I have NO problem accelerating from 50 to 70 mph in traffic. I would describe my driving style as occasionally spirited. Comparing seconds of acceleration is an empty macho marketing line if I ever saw one. I can break the speed limit, drive aggressively and recklessly in a Prime as well as anyone who is about to lose their license.

The fifth seat has been an issue occasionally. Trunk size is also sometimes a minus. But most of the time the car is a damn song. I am sure the Volt is too. Modern cars are all very good. I dont question why anyone would buy either.

Bob Cornway (not verified)    August 28, 2017 - 1:04PM

I am a sales manager at a Toyota store. I "test" all of the new cars on my 21-miles commute, to see what kind of MPG I can get out of the cars. I always exceed the window sticker - and it is not difficult. Keep up with traffic, and use the cruise control.
It seems it takes years for people to catch up with tech and updates in cars. In 2016, the 4th gen Prius debuted with new styling, and independent rear suspension for better handling, and a revised powertrain that allows for faster acceleration. If you "rented one" prior to 2016, you are missing out.
Yes, the older versions were a bit of a yawn. Not any more. Now, the Prius Prime:
I drove my mostly highway commute (18 hwy out of 21), in the electric mode in the Prime. I had 9.5 miles remaining on that battery after 21 miles. Do the math - 35 miles of range! On the way back to work, I got 60.2 MPG WHILE CHARGING THE BATTERY! That is correct - just push the "EV/HV" button in for three seconds, and charge the extra battery WHILE YOU DRIVE! In 21 miles of driving, I put 10 miles of range back on the EV battery. That extrapolates to @60 miles to fully charge that battery. No plugging in needed! You can toggle between those modes, and actually go well over 700 miles on a tank. Hopefully this non-mythcal, correct information will help some consumers spend their money wisely.
P.S. The Volt has a lousy resale value compared to any Prius, so Toyota value continues to be very strong for the consumer. Thank you.

JohnV (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 2:54AM

In reply to by Bob Cornway (not verified)

Why would you want to charge the battery with the engine. Doing that you have all the fuel cost and all the emissions of having driven on gas plus you have extra fuel cost and emissions due to the inefficiencies of the charging system and battery. would it not be better to burn less gas on the return trip then plug in to recharge or if plugging in is not an option just continue burning gas as you need it. I do not understand the benefit of storing energy produced by a gasoline engine.

Victor (not verified)    March 2, 2018 - 9:00PM

Well, as of February 2018 sales showed a big jump on Prius Prime sales, and Volt sales are way down. I was so surprised as I had also considered the Prime a much inferior product. I'm not the only one, seems like every review from the many magazines and other sources agree the Volt is a much better product. I guess the only explanation is the belief in Toyota brand regardless of the product. I have been mostly owning Mazda vehicles since was able to afford purchasing cars. I recently tried my first Chevrolet when I got the Bolt EV (yes, with a B). The Bolt really surprised me in a very positive way, with great performance and reliability. For me, it has been a zero compromise vehicle. If someone had told me a few years ago I would be driving a Chevy today I would have never believe it. Now I'm even considering a Colorado. Amazing how my mind is now switching just by trying one product from Chevy.

john1701a (not verified)    March 5, 2018 - 7:29PM

In reply to by Victor (not verified)

Know your audience.

From an enthusiast perspective, the assessment of "inferior" is easy to justify. But from an ordinary consumer perspective, that same set of criteria is considered overkill.

Why pay a premium for a vehicle that is less efficient in both EV & HV modes and offers fewer features?

Victor (not verified)    March 12, 2018 - 5:21PM

In reply to by john1701a (not verified)

"less efficient in both EV & HV"
That interpretation is misleading, as it doesn't takes into account how long you can be in the efficient EV mode, and that is where the Volt wins. You can't drive the prime in its efficient EV mode for long enough, and as soon as the gas engine kicks in, the efficiency drops, while the Volt keeps its efficient EV mode for much longer. Therefore, for the average driver who drives 10-15k miles per year, the prime just can't deliver a pure electric high efficient mode for most of the year, it has to use gas nearly everyday. The Volt can do without gas for basically the whole year. So you see, the idea of Volt is to give you an EV vehicle with a back up gas engine, and being a back up, is is just for those days when you may need it. With prime, is is hard to do an average drive without using a drop of gas, unless you have a short less than average drive. Volt has a larger battery, larger battery means higher price and also higher range, but also means higher weight, and weight decreases efficiency. So if prime had actually deliver similar range, its EV efficiency would have dropped.

Dennis Melvin (not verified)    March 7, 2018 - 5:40PM

Toyota was sandbagging on numbers! After 20000 miles on my prime it’s the best balance in cold climates. The 4502 fed credit offset our cost with 2500 dollar discount from dealer and a thousand from Toyota it was way cheaper then conventional Prius!This prime charges to 33 ish miles not 25! Sometimes 28.3,29 etc! When it below zero a volt just don’t cut it! Your out of electrons way before advertised! So there you have it mister genius! The real facts!

Victor (not verified)    March 12, 2018 - 5:28PM

In reply to by Dennis Melvin (not verified)

That is no surprise, most EV manufactures underrate. Like for example, my Bolt EV is rated 238 miles of electric range. However, fully charge It get nearly 300 miles of EV range. People in extreme cold weather reports matching or exceeding the range too. Nevertheless, comparing personal experience with rated specifications of another car is not the best way to make conclusions, as you can see. Volt do qualify for fed credits, and GM incentives have been much more aggressive than Toyota, bringing the price down nicely.