2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid: Brief Drive Report

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In the world of plug-in cars, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt may get all the attention, but a new arrival will make it very much a three-car race.

The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid is just now arriving at Toyota dealers in California plus a dozen or so other states.

While it may look just like a standard Prius hybrid, it has a very important difference: Like the Volt and Leaf, it plugs into the wall to recharge its battery pack.

The plug-in Prius has a much smaller battery pack than either of those cars, however, giving it 12 to 15 miles of electric range.

Electric range, interrupted

And that's not necessarily continuous electric range, as it is in the Leaf and Volt. Like a standard Prius hybrid, the Prius Plug-In switches on its engine to drive the wheels under demanding conditions.

As we found out during a couple of short test drives last month in San Diego, this means that--even if you have 10 miles of electric range remaining--an uphill freeway on-ramp will switch on the engine at full howl when you floor the accelerator to merge into fast-moving traffic.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

Enlarge Photo

And once the engine has switched on for the first time, it will stay on for at least a minute or so, even if you revert to slow speeds and gentle acceleration.

That's to make sure the catalytic converter is properly heated up, since engines emit far more pollution from a cold start until the catalyst reaches several hundreds degrees than they do at any other time.

Range estimation: about right

Our test took place on and around a college campus outside San Diego, California. The temperature was in the 60s and 70s, an ideal temperature for maximizing the range of an electric car.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

Enlarge Photo

And a campus tour--with lots of stop signs and 30-mph speed limits--let us keep the plug-in Prius in electric mode for the bulk of our miles.

Toyota offers a display, in fact, that shows what percentage of your miles were covered in electric mode versus with the engine on. It includes in the "electric" category any distance covered with the engine off--including those short periods in regular hybrid operation after the larger pack is depleted.

For short trips--20 miles or less--the majority of those miles will be electric, unless the entire distance was covered at speed on an Interstate highway.

On our first loop, we drove 4.7 miles and used an indicated 5.0 miles of range. On the second test, we covered 4.4 miles but used only 3.8 miles of indicated range.

Both times, the car started with 11 to 13 miles of range on a relatively full battery pack.

As always, remember that--as we learned while driving a prototype Prius Plug-In in a chilly Northeastern November--battery range may fall by 30 percent when the weather gets cold.

Several changes for production

Compared to the prototype Prius Plug-Ins we drove three times in 2010 and 2011, the production model has a handful of changes. It still looks just like a regular Prius, but underneath, there have been many detail updates.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

Enlarge Photo

Most significantly, it has an entirely new battery pack, using different lithium-ion cells made by Sanyo (now owned by Toyota's long-time battery partner Panasonic).

That pack is smaller (4.4 kilowatt-hours versus the prototype's 5.2 kWh), but alterations to the software management algorithms allowed Toyota to get slightly higher electric range by using much more of the smaller pack's energy capacity.

Charging door moved

The few hundred people who drove the prototypes will also notice two operating changes: The driver must push the "EV" mode button to get the car to operate as much as possible on battery power, and the charge port has moved from the left front fender to the right rear.

That seems illogical if you support the reasoning that putting the charge port next to the driver's door keeps it visible, and serves as a subtle reminder to plug in the car when parking.

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Comments (20)
  1. I still don't know what to think of the Plug-in Prius model of electrification. The Chevy Volt E-REV approach with 40 miles of ALL-ELECTRIC seems much better in terms of its environmental cred and long driving range possibilities. As a second car, the LEAF really shines as it uses no gasoline at all and has sufficient range such that on any given day, either my wife or I could use it.

    As far as the vehicles go, the Prius layout is just far better than the Leaf or the Volt. There is very little room to sit in the back of either (no "toe room" in the back of the LEAF). Also, for cargo capacity, the Prius load bay is much better than the Volt.

    I am the only one to feel like the PiP Prius is more of a "sure bet" than the other two?

  2. John,

    I have a Leaf and a Gen 2 Prius. I think the back seat of the Leaf is superior to the Prius since only kids ride back there and toe room is not needed. The kids also sit up higher than in the Prius so they can see everything better. It's less claustrophobic in the back of the Leaf than in most four door sedans.

    How often do you have adults sitting in the back seat, really? Pretty low time I'd think.

  3. We just ordered one this week to replace my wife's car. Be sure to talk to the fleet manager however because salesmen at two dealerships lied to our face (not so shocking right), saying it would probably be another year before we could actually have one, and that they hadn't heard of anyone getting one yet (but look at this nice car over here). We'll have ours in about a month and the fleet manager said the first round of customers already drove theirs away. I have a Leaf which has been wonderful, and my wife normally drives very short distances so she'll mainly be running on battery with the Prius. Now we'll have an economical option for the long hauls.

  4. I also want to note that since our hometown is giving out $2000 toward the Prius, on top of the other state and fed incentives, the price isn't any more than the regular model. So why 100% of Prius-minded buyers wouldn't buy Plug-in is unclear to me.
    You mention the two priced packages available, with the loaded version being quite expensive, but I want readers to know they can buy the base model and add navigation for about $700 through the fleet manager like we did if you don't want the rest of the fluff.

  5. Eric, et al,
    Before I would now ever consider adding a factory based navigation system, I would check out several of the portable car units. At least a couple of 7" screens and offer LIFETIME MAP UPDATES, which OEMs are charging $140 or so for each such annual update. Our last 5 cars have had OEM navigation, but I plan on trying to avoid this very costly extra profit item for the OEM on my next car if possible.

  6. I still don't understand why someone would want to buy the PIP vs. the normal Prius. You will end up paying a lot more for only a slight mileage improvement. Even with a short commute, you will end up burning gas. It's sad that Toyota has made such a seemingly half-hearted effort here.

  7. Also, the PIP's "range" seems deceptive. Yes, it has an 11 mile range, but that's in blended gas/electric mode. As the EPA sticker says, it only has enough juice in the battery for about 6 miles.

  8. Prius PHV's electricity consumption is lower than the tiny i-MiEV (29kWh/100mi vs 30kWh/100mi). Leaf and Volt consume 34kWh/100mi and 36kWh/100mi, respectively. Prius PHV is also rated 50 MPG on gas hybrid mode alone.

    EV in the city and HV on the highway and the ability to switch modes by the driver, there is an opportunity to optimize both fuel in your commute.

  9. You are looking purely at the numbers. It appears very difficult to keep the PIP in pure electric mode, even in the city. I think I agree with John B., the PIP's main competitor is the normal Prius. For shorter commutes, the Leaf/Volt seem like a better option if you are trying to use less gas. And for long distance commutes, the normal Prius seems like the best bet, but negating 6 miles of gas for a longer commute probably won't decrease your mileage too drastically. So I'm not sure where the PIP fit in to that equation.

  10. Have you driven it? If not, let's not make EV performance assumption based on the no-plug version.

    I have been on the prototype and it was a huge difference.

  11. A huge difference how and compared to what? With the numerous reviews and EPA sticker, I think we can make some performance assumptions, such as the typical amount of total EV miles will be 6, according to the EPA. Their range estimates for the Volt and Leaf weren't that far off, so I doubt they will be far off with the PIP.

  12. EV performance in city traffic. You can read owner experience on Priuschat. A few California got theirs delivered already. One got 14 EV miles.

  13. BTW, AER of 6 is before the gas engine kicks in due to a hill simulation in the highway test cycle. The battery charge still remains until 11 miles. During this 11 miles, it is rated 95 MPGe.

    Since there is a button to switch between EV and HV mode, you can choose to run EV mode only in city traffic and leave the highway miles in HV mode.

    EPA doesn't test it that way. They require continuous electric miles to qualify for AER. If you put 6 EV miles at the beginning of your trip and another 6 miles at the end, you'll have a total of 12 right? Nope, according to EPA, you had 6.

  14. I think that is about right. This is a "blended mode" hybrid and the electric only range might just as well be zero. However, during the first 11 miles, I think it is fair to say that the PiP is using mostly electricity.

    This blended mode surely has value in displacing gasoline and reducing pollution, but it seems less "satisfying" than driving on pure electricity.

    I mean, what is the point of driving a Prius if you can't feel smug :). The other day I had a Leaf owner refer to my Prius as a "gas-guzzler."

  15. You can feel smug in city driving conditions where Prius PHV can easily keep up with the traffic.

    For long freedom drives, you can also feel smug with the 50 MPG eAT-PZEV rating.

    Leaf may not use any gas but with the current grid cleanliness, it produces 230 gram of CO2 per mile (national average). Prius (no-plug) produces 222 gram/mile. The PHV model should be cleaner between 200-210 gram/mile.


  16. What is the elevator pitch for the PiP? Is it something like, if you are buying a Prius, might just as well get the plug-in. In other words is Toyota only competing with itself.

    The vehicle is too different from the Volt of the LEAF to be compared directly.

  17. Plugin hybrid peg won't fit into EV hole.

    A hybrid need to use both fuels. Battery is great for city slow speed stop and go traffic. Gas is great for high power, high speed long distance miles. Using the right fuel at the right time is something only a hybrid with two power sources is able tap into.

    It also add the fun factor because the control is given to the driver with a switch. It is not about EV purity but it is about optimizing both fuels.

  18. I might also add, it is also about producing a Plug-in at a more reasonable price. The PiP continues to offer one of the greenest rides available, with a great deal of room for people and their stuff.

  19. The battery and range is too small for the distances people drive in the states... the next version should address this better hopefully... by then, the engine shouldn't come on at highway speeds...


  20. Agreed. Any time you stomp on the pedal to merge in, or get above 62mph, you're burning gas. Sorry - that's not a PEV. My Volt does just fine, and when time to burn gas comes, my Volt does it at around 43mpg. I can run around, driving decently, and easily get 40-44mi in EV on the Volt, and not even have to recharge at work. In my case, a 65mph and 75mph freeway, I'd be burning gas 90% of the time in the Prius. And, is the article backwards? I thought they went from a 4.4 to a 5.2Kwhr battery? If it was only 4.4kWhr, it wouldn't qualify for the federal tax credit, which starts at $2500 for 5kwhr, and an additional $417 per additional kWhr in battery capacity.

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