Despite Caveats, Prius Plug-in Hybrid Could Be Surprise Hit

By · May 08, 2010

Prius Plug-in Hybrid

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid, in La Jolla, Calif., on the route of our first test-drive of the vehicle. Nearly 70 percent of our 18.5 mile drive was in pure electric mode.

Nissan says the all-electric Nissan Leaf will leapfrog the Toyota Prius as the greenest car on the market. GM says the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid will be the game-changer for energy and the environment. But the release of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid—on schedule for 2012—puts Toyota in an awkward position: the need to leapfrog itself.

“The problem is that we’re competing against ourselves,” said Bill Reinert, national manager, Advanced Technology Group at Toyota Motor Sales, speaking at the company’s Sustainable Mobility Seminar held in La Jolla, Calif. this week. The company convened academics and journalists to discuss the future of eco-friendly automotive fuels and technologies—and to launch the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius.

Instead of championing the Prius Plug-in Hybrid as an automotive savior, Reinert focused his energy on disclaimers of why the next iteration of the Prius—a plug-in version that can travel 13 miles without using a drop of gasoline—doesn’t make sense for a lot of consumers.

First, Reinert says, it’s going to be too expensive. The conventional Prius sells in the mid-$20,000, the “sweet spot where the public wants to spend their money,” according to Reinert. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid is going to exceed that price. “How do you offset the costs and make a cogent case for the customer, especially because the conventional Prius is so damn good?”

Bill Reinert at Toyota 2010 Sustainable Mobility Seminar, La Jolla, Calif.
Reinert Presentation Slide about Market Potential for PHEVs

Bill Reinert, Toyota's advanced technology guru, presenting in La Jolla. In his slide, he indicates that plug-in hybrids are outside the economic range of the mass market. Exact pricing has not been announced.

The third generation 2010 Toyota Prius is, in fact, very efficient. Its 1.8-liter internal combustion engine—forget about the batteries and electric motors for a minute—has set new records for efficiency. Reinert believes that adding lithium batteries and plug-in technology will mean even greater carbon reductions, but “they’re really expensive in dollars per ton reduction.”

Thinking Ahead

He also wrings his hands about battery longevity. “We design our car for the second buyers. We want the used buyer to still expect the car will perform adequately for them,” Reinert said. “That’s the case for every Prius you’ve ever read. Right now, we don’t have a battery problem.” He worries that bigger lithium ion batteries required to achieve the Plug-in’s 13 miles of all-electric range will degrade over time. The Prius Plug-in uses three different batteries—two to provide all-electric miles and a third battery for when the first two are depleted and the vehicle becomes a regular 50-mpg Prius.

Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Just like a regular Prius, but with a plug. Generally, the car travels up to 60 miles per hour and stays in EV mode, but the gas engine can come on at higher or lower speeds, depending on driving conditions.

The Plug-in Prius, which will be tested for the next two years, is almost identical to the 2010 conventional Prius. Besides the addition of extra batteries and a plug, the differences are fairly trivial: air vents under the rear seats to help cool the additional batteries; no manual EV button because the computer takes care of shifting in and out of all-electric mode; and a small indicator lighter on the dash that goes off when the three-hour full charge from a 110-volt outlet is complete. Otherwise, in terms of its driving characteristics, creature comforts and style, it’s a Prius.

Maybe Reinert—who as a long-time veteran of advanced auto technology has seen too many supposed silver-bullet solutions come and go—doesn’t want to foist another false panacea on to the public. “If you’re communicating 120 miles per gallon, and you’re actually delivering 60, that’s a problem. Remember how we created a firestorm when our Prius was rated at 50-something and people were getting 45 mpg.” Reinert also cautioned that cold weather and other variable conditions could significantly reduce range. “How do you make this transparent to the customer when there’s so much hype out there?”

Our First Impressions

Based on our 18-mile test drive of the Prius Plug-in along the gorgeous La Jolla coast, Toyota’s only worry should be how it will keep up with demand. Until the last mile of our route, when we put the car in power-performance mode, cranked the AC and floored the accelerator uphill, the car maxed out to 99.9 mpg. By the end of the trip, we tallied an average of 87.7 miles per gallon, with 12.6 percent of driving in EV mode. Our top EV speed was 62 mph, and the average speed—including a number of stops at long traffic lights—was 25 mph.

Our only gripe is that the dashboard designers didn’t move the decimal point over so we could see how far over 100-mpg typical driving would be.

Sudden bursts of acceleration would temporarily kick the Prius Plug-in out of EV mode, but invariably it returned to all-electric driving. Regenerative braking helped push the overall amount of EV driving beyond the advertised range to about 14 miles, during the 18 miles of mixed city-highway miles. It was more difficult to drain the plug-in batteries or to force the car out of EV mode than we had anticipated.

Brad Berman, HybridCars.com editor, pushes the limit of EV driving in the Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

Bear in mind that this was a fairly short route. If your commute is 40 miles or longer, the percentage of all-electric driving obviously will be reduced. But if you commonly drive around 15 miles out and back, before getting access to a charge at home or work, then the Prius Plug-in Hybrid basically becomes a practical mid-size family electric sedan.

The Business Case

For Toyota, less range means less cost—and therefore better economics to compete against the conventional Prius. Reinert said, “Our idea is a small battery. Design the battery small and make a business case, and charge up more frequently.”

Toyota has been criticized for lagging behind the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt in the race for a plug-in mass-market vehicle. Too much has been made of this timing. During 2011, Toyota will be evaluating about 600 Plug-in Priuses around the world—to see how real-world drivers handle the vehicle and its charging—until it moves into mass production in 2012. That’s essentially what Nissan and GM are doing, but with a few thousand vehicles put on sale or leased in select markets in 2011, until they can ramp up production for 2012.

That’s the magic year when consumers will have a choice between:

  • Nissan Leaf, an all-electric compact car with 100 miles range
  • Chevy Volt, a relatively expensive mid-size plug-in hybrid sedan with 40 miles range
  • Prius Plug-in Hybrid, a more moderately priced plug-in sedan with 13 miles range

You might like one option of the other, but the availability of three plug-in options far exceeds what we have today.

Jaycie Chitwood, manager, advanced technology vehicles group, is overseeing the Toyota evaluation project, which will generate a lot of vehicle use data, as well as market information about how Toyota customers view the conventional versus the plug-in Prius models. “There are people that buy for emotional reasons and they just love that freedom of all-electric driving,” Chitwood told HybridCars.com. “If they are already paying more for a Prius, then now they’re going to pay even more for a plug-in Prius. Where’s your value proposition? It’s either in lower cost of driving, and lower cost per mile for electricity versus gasoline, and it’s high MPG.”

We asked if all these attractive attributes might make the Prius Plug-in Hybrid a surprise hit.

Chitwood paused as if considering that possibility for the first time. “We’re open to that.”

Comments

· Anonymous · 4 years ago

I think a lot of people will want the PHV Prius for bragging rights.
On a strictly financial basis, it does not make sense, but loads of cars (performance / luxury cars) make no sense financially, and yet people buy them.
There is no point in buying a car that can do 155 mph, when the speed limit is 75, but people buy them for the prestige - for the number alone (men mostly).

They will do the same for the PHV mpg, they just want a bigger number so they can brag about it.
And this will generate a halo effect for the rest of the brand.

I cannot predict how many PHVs they would sell, but as long as there is not a great deal of extra tooling needed to produce it, it should not matter; this is about building the brand and showing what is possible, rather than selling hundreds of thousands of units in the next 3 years.

· Anonymous · 4 years ago

I think Toyota has hit the sweet spot here. A 14 mi EV range would lower my energy cost by $400 to $500 per year over my 05 Prius. If the additional cost is $5000, payback is under 10 years. Not wonderful in strictly economic terms, but within my stretch range for the feel good of using less oil. The Volt 40 mi range seems too expensive to me for near term battery costs.

A question is whether the potential extra battery repair costs after say 150k miles would be balanced by less repair costs for brakes, gas engine wear, etc.

Another question is how complicated, expensive would it be for this plugin to be adapted to being an emergency power source, driven by the gas engine. Such a use would be worth about $3k of extra investment to me. I would be quite interested if anyone has knowledge about this. "V2G" has been talked about, but I have not seen any estimates of its incremental cost.

· Anonymous · 4 years ago

I would only add that using today's price of gasoline may not be the best payback scenario. Gas prices will certainly rise faster than inflation over the coming ten years.

· · 4 years ago

I agree that plug-in hybrids with relatively small battery packs (say 5 or 6 kWh) might strike the balance between offering a lot of all-electric driving, a modest premium cost, and a hundreds of miles of range. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will be a nice compliment to the other electric-drive cars coming out. Bigger battery packs mean more cost.

· Anonymous · 4 years ago

Hi Brad. Love your hybrids wrap you send out.

I note above that you reported "...During 2011, Toyota will be evaluating about 600 Plug-in Priuses around the world—to see how real-world drivers handle the vehicle and its charging—until it moves into mass production in 2012. .."

I'm in Australia, a happy 2007 Prius driver and would like to know how or if one can apply or be considered for 1 of the field testing prius plug-ins in 2011. Do you have any inside info on where and who in regards to this please.

Thanks
Ben.

· · 4 years ago

Its impossible to really say where the balance between EV range, price, charging time, body style, ICE contribution, etc actually needs to be. I don't believe that surveys or asking people is going to help either. What is going to have to happen, like with all consumer products, is that folks are going to have to build stuff and see what sells.
This road will be littered with failures for various reasons (think POQET computer, the Apple Lisa, IBM palmtop, Pontiac Aztec, AMC Pacer, Chrysler PT Cruiser, 8-track tape, Betamax, etc) and a few smashing hits (F-150, Chevy Malibu, Prius, iPod, Palm PIlot, iPhone, Sony Walkman, etc). All of these products had extensive, quality market surveys done yet some won and some lost. The greater deviation from the norm, the greater the successes and the greater the losses.
EVs are way too revolutionary to predict accurately. Decisions will have to be made and stuck with and the market (customer satisfaction, marketing approaches, sales channel setup, etc) will have to determine the winners and losers.
A Plug-in Prius with slow EV performance and range may be sufficient to sell or it might not. We won't know for sure and a lot will depend on how Toyota approaches it as well.

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