The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid is, like its iconic sibling, an excellent hybrid but a remarkably bland car. Oh sure, it will carry you all over creation on miniscule quantities of gas in reasonable comfort. But it does so with no style or excitement.
That’s to be expected, because we’re talking about a teched-out Prius, a car that’s always been as thrilling as a shopping cart. The plug-in gets an extension cord and a lithium-ion battery that lets you cruise on electrons alone for 13 miles. But in every other way that matters, the plug-in Prius is identical to the car that’s dominated the hybrid market since, well, forever. It looks, feels and, alas, drives the same.
But then, driving dynamics aren’t the point. This car’s raison d’Ãªtre is exceptional fuel economy, and it delivers. I spent 10 days with a beta version of the car we’ll see in early 2012 and averaged 62.6 mpg. Yes, you can achieve that in a regular Prius if you drive like your dear aunt Edna, but I accomplished that without giving the slightest thought to efficiency. I even went so far as to skip charging the battery a couple of times to see what it would do to my fuel economy and still did no worse than 48.4 mpg. On those days when I did drive with a measure of restraint, I easily got into the 70s and even 80s.
Clearly this is a big step forward, even for a notorious miser like the Prius. Much of the credit for the added thriftiness goes to the 5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery under the cargo floor. It is considerably bigger than the 1.3 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal hydride pack in the regular Prius, with higher voltage (350 versus 200) as well. Plug into a 110-volt outlet like your TV uses and you’re good to go in three hours. A 220-volt line cuts that in half.
The extra electrical oomph provides the Prius with a proper EV mode. You’ll whir along smoothly and — almost — silently for 13 miles. The motor is equally meager at just 80 horsepower, peak, but it’s got decent torque and feels peppier than you’d expect. Go faster than 62 mph, though, and the 1.8-liter gasoline engine takes over.
No, 13 miles isn’t much range at all, especially against that other famous plug-in hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt. But a bigger battery costs more and weighs more, and Toyota argues it balanced range and cost.
Go beyond 13 miles and the four-banger wakes with a moan, a transition that is jarring given the smoothness of Toyota’s competitors. It is by no means a deal-breaker, but you’d think Toyota would have sorted that out by now. The 98-horsepower engine and regenerative brakes keep the pack juiced in hybrid mode.
Acceleration is, um, relaxed in “eco” mode. Even “power” mode, which is useful for passing maneuvers and merging with freeway traffic, is relative. The plug-in Prius trundles to 60 mph in anywhere from 10.5 to 11.3 seconds, depending upon which glossy magazine is doing the testing. That’s a second or more behind its sibling, due largely to the 358 pounds the battery, electronics and so forth add to the car.
The driving dynamics are equally uninspiring. The steering is vague, the brakes provide zero feedback and the suspension is mushy. No one buys a car like this to carve corners, though, so these aren’t complaints, just observations.
Inside you’ll find acres of thin fabric and plastic. The interior of the car I drove was awash in beige, and while that helps keep the interior cool, minimizing the need for energy-sucking air conditioning, it does nothing to mitigate the “meh” factor. That said, I’ve always thought the flying buttress center console is cool, and the vaguely space-age vibe of dashboard compliments the car’s advanced drivetrain.
The simple yet effective energy management system does a fine job telling you how much energy you’ve got, how much you’re using and what kind of fuel economy you’re getting. It isn’t as detailed as the systems in the Volt or Nissan Leaf, but it gets the job done.
And that may be the best that can be said about the Prius plug-in: It gets the job done. Frankly, the Volt is a better car — faster and smoother, with better range and a more attractive look. I mention that only because the Volt is the only other mass-market plug-in hybrid available right now, so the comparison is inevitable. But the plug-in Prius is a comfortable, capable commuter that gets exceptional fuel economy. Ask nothing more from it and you’ll be happy.
Photos courtesy Toyota
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