Prius in the Snow--Hybrid or Hazard?

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Flickr user Geognerd took this lovely photo of his Prius in the snow in December 2007.

Flickr user Geognerd took this lovely photo of his Prius in the snow in December 2007.

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Most Toyota Prius owners love their cars--not just love, but LUV. And Priuses are thick and fast on the ground in California locales like San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Santa Monica.

None of those places gets snow more than once every, say, 20 years.

But large swathes of the rest of the country endure snow falling from the sky on a regular basis. So how does the Prius do in snow? Some recent comments indicate the answer may be, "not so good ... to downright awful". And it's a regular topic on Prius chat boards.

The problem is twofold; first, performance of the nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery declines somewhat with temperature (just as it does for regular 12-Volt lead-acid starter batteries). The less time the Prius runs on battery power, the more gas it burns, meaning fuel economy declines. Anecdotal reports say the summer's 50-mpg average may fall to somewhere between 33 and 40 miles per gallon. That's not really that much extra gasoline (up to 1 gallon extra every 100 miles), but Prius owners take their fuel economy seriously.

Second, and more problematic, the traction control sometimes works against the owner in icy conditions. The purpose of the system is to prevent wheel slip and loss of traction, but because electric motors provide maximum torque from 0 rpm, on slippery roads the wheels spin easily--whereupon the traction control promptly brakes the spinning wheel. The result, is halting acceleration with beeping from the skid alert, say owners, as the wheels lose traction, are slowed down, and then the cycle repeats once the car stabilizes.

Moreover, the traction control can't be switched off in a Prius, unlike other cars.

But often when the topic comes up, the Prius faithful weigh in, questioning why drivers would want to spin their wheels in the first place and disputing claims of lower winter mileage.

So we'd like to hear from Prius owners in snowy climes (that means you, Maine, Colorado, and the Plains States!): How does your Prius do during the depths of winter?

Here's one opinion to get you started, from our colleague Joe Brezny at AllCarsElectric.

[Photo taken by Flickr user Geognerd; Flickr has many more photos of Priuses in the snow.]

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