The iconic Toyota Prius was the car which started the hybrid revolution. Offering fuel economy that very few other gasoline cars could hope to achieve, it has been loved by politicians, movie stars and wannabe greenies for over ten years.
Although Toyota improved its hybrid drivetrain for the 2010-11 Toyota Prius to give even better gas mileage, the aging platform - soon to be a brand in its own right - is struggling to defend its green image against eco newcomers like the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt.
Toyota’s solution? Turn the popular Prius into a plug-in hybrid, capable of around 13 miles powered entirely by electricity alone - and sell it as the ultimate all-round eco-car.
Our John Voelcker got some time behind the wheel of a prototype of the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid back in April last year, followed by a longer 424 mile thanksgiving trek. Even our Deputy Editor Bengt Halverson, normally found at the wheel of larger, less environmentally friendly cars has had some time with one, leading to ask if by the numbers. would it would work for you?
But while we know the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid is great -- if a little sluggish -- around town in all-electric mode, we wanted to see how it would fare in the real-world test of a family holiday.
1,400 miles, two adults, two kids, a whole lot of luggage. And a dog.
Playing Tetris with your dog
The first challenge on the week-long holiday was finding a place to put everything and everyone. Thanks to its larger 4 kilowatt-hour battery pack, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid doesn’t have the same under-load-bay storage found in its non plug-in sibling. In addition, the load-bay floor is approximately 1 inch higher, further restricting the storage space available.
Fortunately for us, hours of playing Tetris and paying attention in geometry class paid off. Kids, dog and adults were accommodated. The Prius’ fifth seat helped greatly in our task, allowing us to use one of the rear seats to house a large suitcase while retaining somewhere for both children to sit in their booster seats.
Admittedly, a roof rack would have given more space inside at the detriment of fuel economy, but given the lack of roof bars, we opted for another solution: putting the small amount of excess luggage in the 2009 Toyota Prius our friends were driving.
A point of note before we move on: Toyota has told us that the production version of the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid will feature a lithium-ion rather than nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, meaning the luggage space will be closer to that available in the standard 2012 Prius.
Better fuel economy than the Volt on long-distance trips
While the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid doesn’t have the all-electric range of its closest rival - the 2012 Chevrolet Volt - it does boast a range of around 550 miles on a full tank of gasoline and a fully charged battery pack.
On the way to our destination, we were able to charge after around 280 miles while having a meal at the first freeway rest stop in England to have an electric car charging station, enabling the fuel economy to hover around 66 mpg for the first day.
Interestingly, that represents a better fuel economy than the 60 mpg given by the EPA to the 2011 Chevrolet Volt for a combined cycle and a much improved economy over the Volt’s official EPA rating of 37 mpg once its battery pack has been depleted.
In other words, on longer trips, the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid wins hands down.
Less so on mid-distance trips
But the advantages the 2012 Plug-in Prius has over the 2011 Chevrolet Volt disappears when doing mid-range trips of between 30 and 80 miles, as we soon found out.
In rural Scotland, we found very few places to plug in and recharge the Prius’ battery pack. As a consequence, trips to local tourist spots were made on just one charge of the battery pack per day.
And as soon as our battery pack was empty, we were back to gasoline operation.
Minimal range needn’t be a problem though
We’ve got to admit that the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid has an absolutely lousy all-electric range on paper. It’s not much better in real life. But with careful driving, we were able to get as many as 20 miles of all-electric driving, and even managed a mountain climb or two in all-electric mode.
So it can’t go very far in all-electric mode. But if you live and work in the same area or have access to regular charging that might not be so much of an issue. And we’re guessing that when it launches, Toyota will make the Prius Plug-in Hybrid as easy (if not easier) to get as the 2012 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Chevrolet Volt.
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid also has another feather for its metaphorical cap over the 2011 Chevrolet Volt: Familiarity. With tens of thousands of Prii already on the roads of the U.S, we’d expect many existing Prius owners to switch to the new plug-in model rather than switch to the 2011 Chevrolet Volt or 2011 Nissan Leaf - especially if they’ve been Toyota owners for some time.
The Plug-in Prius is also cheaper than both the Volt or the Leaf, making it the more obvious choice for drivers not yet convinced they are ready for a full-blown electric car.
An all rounder? That depends on how you define it
We have to admit that when we entered this week-long test drive we were skeptical, approaching the test-drive with the misconception that the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid would struggle to do anything well.
We were wrong. Yes, the car felt noticeably heavier than its standard non plug-in sibling, but it felt similar enough that even a regular Prius owner felt reasonably at home.
Fuel economy was better than we thought too. In the 1,400 miles we drove the Prius Plug-in Hybrid - including two 400+ mile freeway treks with a fully laden car and countless steep inclines on highland mountain passes - we averaged a respectful 63 mpg.
By anyone’s definition, that’s substantially better than the EPA’s official rating of 51 mpg for the standard 2011 Toyota Prius.
Here’s the crux of the problem. The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid is only better than the 2012 Nissan Leaf and 2012 Chevrolet Volt if you need to do a lot of long-distance driving.
In this case, we think that equates to anything above 250 miles, at least twice a month. And that’s 250 miles in areas without anywhere to stop for a fast level 2 or rapid level 3 charge.
If your idea of a fun weekend is driving a few hundred miles upstate to a remote campsite, or you have relatives in the neighboring state, then perhaps the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid is for you. That is, if you can make the 13 mile all-electric range work for you on a daily basis and you don’t mind the Plug-in Prius’ lackluster performance in all-electric mode.
But if your commute pushes 35-60 miles, you never leave the metropolis, or you have another car in the garage for those weekends away, perhaps you’re better off going for the 2012 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Chevrolet Volt.
Undoubtedly, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid can’t compete with the likes of the 2012 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Chevrolet Volt when it comes to range in all-electric mode. but if your weekly driving style consists of lots of very short trips followed by regular long-distance treks, you can't afford to miss testing this car out. It may not have the Leaf's enviromental credentials or the Volt's sharp looks and longer range, but it could save you money in the long term.