When the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid goes on sale about this time next year, it will be the first mass-production vehicle from Toyota that plugs in. Yet, despite that, the Plug-In feels more like a value-added version of the Prius than a model that will be itself iconic or radically new.
It's value-added, because owners will have some of the benefits of an electric vehicle, without the worry that they won't make it back on a charge. After a relatively short three-hour charge on standard 110V household power, you can drive approximately 12 to 15 miles without the gasoline engine contributing to propulsion. After that, it's just a standard Prius and gets about the same mileage as the standard-issue model (which has an EPA-rated 51 mpg city, 48 highway).
A Prius...just one with an added charge
And it looks virtually identical to a standard Prius. The little charging door just ahead of the driver's door is about the only difference you'll see from the outside compared to a normal 2011 Prius.
To simplify a bit, the Plug-In drives much like a regular Prius—just one that's a bit heavier.
The new lithium-ion battery pack that's crammed under the Prius cargo floor allows the Prius Plug-In to go up to 14 miles on electric power alone; after that it's, for all practical purposes, a standard Prius, and still capable of creeping along in parking lots and some of the slowest residential streets, in some situations on only electric power as well.
The Prius Plug-In's larger pack takes up more space than the standard Prius pack, of course. It leaves no space under the rear cargo floor, no spare tire even; it's all batteries.
The Prius is hauling around an extra three hundred pounds all the time with the larger battery pack, and it's a difference you can feel in the way it rides and handles. More jarring ride quality at the rear wheels is the main difference you'll feel, and while it's probably just a bit slower than the standard Prius's 0-60 time of around ten seconds, it feels noticeably more sluggish in low-speed transitions, when you're getting back on the power out of a corner, for instance.
Keeping the Prius on electric mode requires some restraint. Push the throttle past the three-quarter point or so and the gasoline engine comes on; that's not so much because the Prius wouldn't be able to move quickly enough in EV mode, but it's to best use the limited battery power toward better efficiency. At higher speeds and higher loads, well, that's where the gasoline engine is better for bursts.
Enough EV pep to keep up with traffic, but not like Leaf
Driving the Prius Plug-In is actually nothing like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, even in EV Mode. While the Leaf feels surprisingly strong and torquey at stoplights, the Prius is a little sluggish, with few hints of that churning instant-on EV torque. The Prius can move respectably with most traffic in EV mode, though. Very carefully feathering the throttle at the three-quarter-or-so point before the gasoline engine comes on, we saw 60 mph take about 20 seconds from a standing start.
Even if you do drive slowly and mindfully, you'll probably hear the gasoline engine firing up from time to time, even during 'EV' operation. We had the gasoline engine come on once just -after- cresting a gentle 55-mph crest; we observed it turn on and off during 35-mph boulevard cruising; and we noticed it turn on for all but two of our fully cold starts. It's puzzling, and you just have to trust that it's keeping the accessory system charged even though it's not needed for propulsion. After a few days, we came to think of it in the same vein as as an A/C compressor.
EV Mode button on the way
Although the Prius PHEV will be available for purchase beginning next year in virtually the same form, it will by then get an EV Mode button, which won't lock EV Mode on after you charge, as the system does now, but rather allow you to lock it out—if you have to drive almost immediately at higher speed or up a mountain pass, for instance, where you'd rather not exhaust all your charge quickly.
While you can, no doubt, go through charge quickly with the Plug-In if you're heavier on the throttle, we saw much less of the variability we saw with the Nissan Leaf. That's the case, reminded Toyota environmental spokesman John Hanson, because with a smaller capacity comes a shorter, albeit more consistent, range. We averaged a bit more than 12 miles in EV Mode, but over many charges we never saw significantly less than that.
Flaws: harder ride, less effective defogger
Other than the jarring ride, the other significant weakness we found was with the climate control. We had the Plug-In during some particularly cool, rainy days, and while the heater itself seemed plenty strong, the climate control system seemed unable at some times to quickly purge moisture. We switched from Eco Mode to the norma mode for the hybrid system, but that seemed to make no difference. In one instance, with three people in the vehicle, the windshield started re-fogging while the defogger was still on.
You can turn on the climate control in advance—something we recommend—and at the time it's publicly available, about a year from now, the Plug-In will have an app for remote control of climate and charging functions.
Tested this year, on sale next
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Drive - March 2011
In the meantime, more than 160 Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles are being placed with U.S. academic institutions, public utilities, local government, and corporations in an effort to gather more data on how Plug-Ins perform and are used. And they're part of a test fleet of 600 PHEVs worldwide.
We were able to borrow one of the official program cars for six days, and over about six full charges and 103 miles of local errand-running, we got into the habit of plugging in. The catch with the Prius PHEV's short range is that you truly do need to plug in after nearly every errand.
As to whether the Plug-In is value-added in terms of traditional dollars and cents, well, that's not so certain. Toyota plans to sell the Prius Plug-In for $3,500 to $5,000 more than the standard Prius. We'll follow this post up with a look at the numbers.
Overall, the Plug-In feels like the ultimate Prius—perfect for those who want a little extra EV ability in a worry-free vehicle they can still drive cross-country.