The Prius Plug-In Hybrid: A California Car Non-Residents Can Like, Too

By · September 03, 2012

The Plug-In Prius

The Prius Plug-In Hybrid is $32,000, but federal and state subsidies are available. And HOV access is a powerful incentive for Californians! (Toyota photo)

Well, the numbers are in. Since it went on sale in March through August 27, Toyota sold 5,818 Toyota Plug-In Hybrids in the U.S. (including some cars in Hawaii). Does that sound like a good number? Maybe not if you look at total Prius sales: The whole family moved 16,643 units in July alone.

The Bi-Coastal Car

But the Prius Plug-In Hybrid starts to look better if you factor in that it’s only sold so far in 15 states, all of them with coastlines (except Arizona). It’s a bi-coastal car, and the great American middle is going to have to wait for it.

Where’s it selling best? “The vast majority are sold in California,” said Maurice Durand, a product specialist at Toyota. And Durand points to Los Angeles and San Francisco as the largest markets, with maybe EV-friendly San Diego in third place.

California is predisposed to like this car, because the state's had a longstanding love affair with the Prius. If you have one in the Bay Area, better put a tennis ball on the radio antenna so you can find it in a parking lot.

An HOV Champ

Unfortunately, your regular hybrid Prius has been disenfranchised from the carpool lanes in California, but the plug-in version is one of only two cars (the other is the Volt) certified for a green sticker. So far, 4,092 state drivers have gotten green plug-in hybrid stickers.

“I think it’s a huge incentive to have access to the HOV lanes,” said Toyota spokeswoman Jana Hartline. “That’s very attractive for folks.”

The Plug-In Prius

Car sales are concentrated in California, but right now it's available only in 15 states. (Toyota photo)

But even if you live somewhere else, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid is an attractive proposition. I spent a week with one recently, and found that it fit my lifestyle. I don’t really drive all that far, and I was able to get a more-than-adequate 13 miles of electric travel on a charge (from 110, since I don’t have a 240-volt charger).

Durand says he’s seen 16 miles, which isn’t bad considering the Prius’ lithium-ion battery pack is only 4.4 kilowatt-hours. “It’s a car for people who want that electric capability, and a higher level of technology,” he said.

Slippery Profile

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 more than 800 pounds less than what is going to be its chief competitor in the short term, the Ford C-Max Energi.

The Prius Plug-In is rated by the EPA at 87 MPGe, though as they say your results will vary. 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. On the road, it drives much like a standard Prius, even when it’s running on batteries alone—I noted no dramatic drop-off in power.

The car is pretty easy to live with. Charge times are only three hours on 120 volts, and 1.5 hours on 240. The li-ion battery pack is small enough that it doesn’t compromise passenger or luggage space. The price could be an obstacle, though. This is a $32,000 car, though it’s eligible for a $2,500 federal tax credit. And there’s more: California owners not only get the HOV sticker but a $1,500 rebate through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program. Better act fast, because they’re first-come, first-served and the money runs out.

"It Works for Me"

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 week days, 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 next year.

Here's Consumer Reports' video report on the car:

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
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