The Toyota Prius maintains an iconic status as the quintessential hybrid gas-electric car. That dates back to the introduction of the second-generation Prius a decade ago, when Toyota unveiled the car’s signature aerodynamic shape. It is unmistakable on the road. Critics disparage it as dorky, appliance-like, jellybean, or just plain ugly. Fans defend it as tech-chic or space age, and point to its very low air resistance (and the resulting efficiency) as its underlying inspiration.
No matter how you slice it, the style of the Prius is decidedly not sleek and sporty.
From the outside, the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius is indistinguishable from its no-plug sibling. So, whatever you think about the regular Prius Liftback, just carry those emotions to the plug-in version.
In certain regions of the U.S. where the Prius is popular—it’s a best seller in California—the Prius is so common as to blend in with the environment. These are likely to be areas where the Prius Plug-in Hybrid will sell in the greatest numbers. As with other Prius variants, the car can be a badge of honor for environmental stewardship.
If that’s the case for the standard Prius, it’s even more true for the plug-in version, which can commonly double efficiency from around 50 miles per gallon, to 100 MPGe.
The raison d’etre of the Prius, in all its forms, is to save fuel—not provide driving excitement. That’s certainly true of the Prius Plug-in as well. If you see cars as primarily a means of conveyance—getting from A to B—this won’t bother you in the least. It’s just a car, and the ride is generally normal and comfortable. But if want a more visceral connection with your road machine, then you should expect the relationship with the Prius to be purely platonic.
Acceleration is weak, steering is numb, and braking is mushy. Oh well.
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.
The key distinction, in terms of drive-feel, between the Prius hybrid and other cars is the transition between gas and electric operations. Toyota appears content to allow a flutter-rumble to be readily apparent to drivers, while other automakers—most notably Ford—are able to make those transitions from electric to gas and back relatively imperceptible.
In the Prius Plug-in, the noticeable transitions between all-electric driving to hybrid/gas mode are more annoying, because the primary motivation of many plug-in drivers is to avoid internal combustion. Based on our multiple test-drives of the PIP, the gas engine can come on anytime your foot applies slightly too much pressure, even if it’s just coming out of a parking lot and even if there is energy in the extra 4.4-kWh battery pack. The consolation, of course, is long driving range with great efficiency—even when running partially on gas—but don’t expect the wonderfully smooth and zippy-silent experience of most EVs.
The EPA rates the Prius Plug-in’s fuel economy at a 95 mpg equivalent on a fully charged battery, and 51/49 mpg city/highway after the battery is depleted. Those are very strong ratings, not imaginable just a few years ago.
There’s a big difference between 50 and 95 mpg. The ability to push efficiency close to triple-digits means driving within the PIP’s 11 miles of EV range as much as possible. That can be achieved as a matter of course if your commute is modest, or by charging up as much as possible throughout the day.
The Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s EV battery is 4.4 kilowatt-hours, a fraction of what is used in more robust plug-in hybrids from competing automakers. So, the bad news is that 11 miles is not that much, and will get burned up fast. The good news is that it doesn’t take long to re-charge the plug-in Prius, so frequent top-ups are manageable (if you can get access to a source electricity at home, work, and on the go).
Another efficiency factor is how you drive. Unlike other plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt and Ford PHEVs (when in the right driver-selected mode), you can’t stomp on the Prius Plug-in Hybrid and expect to stay electric. Maximizing the benefits of the Prius requires a light foot—which for some takes away any hope of fun behind the wheel, but can be an enjoyable hypermiling game for some eco-geeky drivers.
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."
If you’re up to the challenge, and want all the versatility and space that a Prius offers, maybe you can match Rich’s experience.
And remember, when the EV battery is exhausted, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid reverts back to a mid-size family sedan that commonly manages more than 50 miles per gallon. That’s compelling.
As mentioned above, this is the prescribed driving/charging pattern: charge up overnight; drive 11 miles; park and charge at work; drive 11 miles home; and charge again while you have dinner, watch TV or sleep. If you follow this pattern, your gasoline mpg could stay in triple digits.
During one of our days with the Plug-In, we made all short trips of 10 to 15 miles, punctuated by a couple of hours on a home 240-volt charger. We maintained an average of 74 mpg.
Using a 240-volt charger will fully replenish an empty PIP battery in about 1.5 hours. With a standard 120-volt outlet, expect about three hours of charging. Still, that’s not bad.
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. (Ford’s plug-ins compromise a lot of cargo real estate—so much as to strike its plug-in models off the shopping list of many buyers.)
Seating for five adults is easy, with generous head- and leg-room throughout.
Still, the Prius—like many Toyota models—uses a fairly low grade of plastic materials in the interior. The build quality is only meh, and after a number of years, drivers experience rattles and vibrations.
The added price of the plug-in version of the Prius is applied to the bigger battery and greater potential for exceptional fuel economy—not to creature comforts. For the same price on a much less efficient car, you could feel a lot more pampered and impressed.
Standard features include navigation, a rearview camera, satellite radio, auxiliary and USB audio inputs, Bluetooth, seven air bags, automatic climate control and Toyota’s Entune touch-screen infotainment system. Features available as options or on the higher Advanced trim include an eight-speaker JBL sound system and adaptive cruise control.
The Prius Plug-in Hybrid aced safety tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, earning a Good rating—the highest score—across the board.
Scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are mixed, with an overall rating of 4 out of 5 in all tests, except the top score of 5 on the side crash test.
The vehicle is equipped with the full array of airbags and advanced braking/control systems.
The price for the base-model Prius Plug-in Hybrid—before incentives and destination fees—is $29,900. (Destination adds $810.) The 2014 Prius Plug-in Hybrid is well-equipped (similar to a Prius Three), and includes these features: heated cloth front seats; remote climate (a feature that allows customers to remotely activate); 10-spoke alloy wheels; and one additional year of Roadside Assistance through ToyotaCare, for a total of three years.
The Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced price is $34,905. The Advanced model offers: premium HDD Navigation with Entune App Suite; SofTex-trimmed heated front seats; 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar support; Head-Up Display; and safety connect.
The 2014 Prius Plug-in Advanced also offers these new options: Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System, LED headlights and fog lights as part of an optional Technology Package.
The Prius Plug-in qualifies for a $2,500 Federal tax credit, and $1,500 from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Program. It is also eligible for a California High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane sticker.
Toyota’s website lists special offers—subject to change—including a 36-month lease of $239 a month, with a $2,499 down payment—and a $3,000 “cash back” offer on purchases: http://www.toyota.com/local-specials/#!/series/priusplugin/year/2014/incentiveid/77101
Comparisons of Similar Cars
Given the combination of a midsize hatchback platform, and the smallest EV battery on the plug-in market, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid doesn’t really compete with any other plug-in electric vehicle. You could argue that the Ford Fusion Energi or Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid are comparable cars, but those are big mainstream sedans—while the Prius has less robust electric capability and an overall geekier green persona.
We believe that the closest car on the market that stacks up against the Prius Plug-in Hybrid is the regular no-plug Toyota Prius. In this light, you could look at the plug-in Prius as a “super hybrid,” rather than an EV. Then, determining which is better—the regular Prius versus the plug-in Prius—comes down to your driving cycle: if you drive a lot of short distances, with plenty of opportunity to charge at home, work and in-between, then you will get a lot of benefit from the plug-in capability.
But if you are a long-commute road warrior, or don’t feel committed to plugging-in (and all the social and environmental benefits that come with it), then the 50-mpg no-plug Prius might be the best choice for you. Unfortunately, we continue to hear reports about California car buyers stepping up to Prius Plug-in Hybrid strictly for the ability to get access to carpool lanes when driving solo. That gets problematic when those drivers never plug-in. (Consider that California established a cap on the number of HOV stickers it will issue, and will likely reach that ceiling in 2014.)
The plug-in Prius is sold in the same way the brand’s other cars. Visit dealerships in these states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.