In February 2012, Toyota started giving green car shoppers a compelling new choice. Consumers wanting stellar fuel economy are now able to choose between a gas-powered 50-MPG Prius with all the available bells and whistles—and for about the same price, a version of the Prius that plugs in to earn an estimated MPG-equivalent of about 87 miles to the gallon.
The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s 4.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack provides 11 or more all-electric miles after a full charge. Unlike other plug-in hybrids that only use the engine to sustain battery power, the Prius-with-plug blends the use of gasoline with electricity to provide propulsion. Yes, if driven with a light foot, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid can stay in all-electric mode—assuming there’s still juice in the battery—up to 62 miles-per-hour. But the car fires up its gas engine at any sign of real acceleration.
The primary benefit of a plug-in hybrid is that it can travel purely on electricity for many miles—but it also eliminates any worries about EV range or the need for electric vehicle infrastructure. When the battery drains, the car becomes a conventional hybrid with 50-mpg efficiency—and with the ability to quickly pump in petrol when you need to go further.
Toyota deserves kudos for offering plug-in capability without any compromise of the passenger and cargo space of the standard Prius Liftback. This car is much roomier than a LEAF or Volt. The model's convenience, and a general trust in the Toyota brand, helps explain why the Prius Plug-in Hybrid has been a sale success in the early going.
Through September 2012, sales of the Prius Plug-In checked in at 7,734. That helped plug-in hybrids take a decisive lead over pure electric cars on the sales chart. Still, to EV drivers—including this one—it’s annoying to hear and feel the gas engine of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid come on so easily. Based on my multiple test-drives of the PIP, it happens anytime your foot applies slightly too much pressure, even if it’s just coming out of a parking lot.
But what matters most to a lot of drivers is overall efficiency. And Toyota is keen to point out that some Prius Plug-in owner are consistently getting the equivalent of 130 or miles per gallon. "I commute 31 miles each way to work," said Bay Area PIP-driver Rich Stephens. "I have put about 4,000 miles on my Prius Plug-in, equally split between gas and EV, and so far the average mileage shown on the computer is 136 MPGe. With a full charge, my estimated EV range on the dash started at 12.9, dipped slowly to 11.3 as I was learning how best to drive, but has gone back up now to 12.5 miles and continues to climb. In the mornings, even when it is cool, I can drive more than 14 miles in EV mode on the freeway."
Like the standard Prius, the plug-in hybrid has a very slippery 0.25 coefficient of drag. Through an aggressive program of weight reduction, including extensive use of lightweight materials (high-strength steel, plastics), the car tops the scales at 3,165 pounds (about the same as a Prius V). That’s 800 pounds less than what is going to be its chief competitor in the short term, the Ford C-Max Energi.
The car’s hybrid system delivers 134 net horsepower, with a 98 horsepower (105 foot pounds of torque) motor and a 60-kilowatt (80-horsepower) electric motor. Charge times are only three hours on 120 volts, and 1.5 hours on 240.
Is It a Match for You?
Gina Coplon-Newfield, the Sierra Club’s clean car campaigner and a Boston-area resident, was an early customer for the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid. She wrote on her blog:
“When I first heard about Toyota’s plans for the plug-in Prius, I remember thinking, ‘What kind of customer would buy a plug-in car that has such a short electric range of 11-15 miles?’ Then, as I thought about it, I realized this car actually fits my family's needs to a T. We’re a one-car family (except for a brief period right now). On most weekdays, we drive under 10 miles around our home city of Cambridge, Massachusetts (where we often walk or take the train or bus)…. I’m thrilled that almost all of our local city driving miles are electric -- with no gas or tailpipe emissions.”
OK, now take all the Coplon-Newfields who live in California, give them HOV incentives, and you have the typical Prius Plug-In Hybrid customer. Their numbers are likely to grow, and definitely as the word gets out and the car is actually available outside coastal America.
The Prius Plug-Ins other states are Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Hawaii. It rolls out nationally in 2013.