By Roger Boylan
When a representative from Toyota asked me if I’d be interested in having the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius hybrid to myself for a couple of days, I of course said yes, knowing that relatively few drivers have had that privilege. And a privilege it has been. Rarely do I consider myself a trendsetter, a go-getter, or on the cutting edge of anything, but I felt like all three at the wheel of this Jetsonmobile.
The name “Prius,” of course, is as synonymous with “hybrid” as the name “Bill Clinton” is with “ego,” and Toyota has sold well over two million copies since its worldwide introduction in 2001, so Priuses tend to be among the more ubiquitous vehicles on the road. Not the Plug-In, though, which Toyota calls the PHV, for “Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle.” This variant first appeared at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show, and only about 150 are currently being test-driven in the U.S. These cars are not “mules” or prototypes, but fully finished cars that look and perform pretty much like regular Priuses, the main difference being that the PHV boasts a larger-capacity battery pack consisting of 3.6-volt lithium-ion cells rather than the nickel-metal hydride cells in the standard Prius. This allows for rapid charging via household current and a short electric-only driving range at speeds up to 62 m.p.h.
Accordingly, between 4 and 7 p.m. last Monday I could be found hovering anxiously around the recycling bin in my garage, not just to ensure ecologically correct disposal of my empties but because in the wall behind the bin a 24-foot-long heavy-duty cord was plugged into a 110-volt outlet, and at the other end of the cord was my test PHV. It was a simple procedure, “just like charging a cell phone,” I’d been told, but whereas I’d had some experience with cell phones I’d never charged a car before, so I fell prey to the most lurid imaginings: electrical grids crashing, entire neighborhoods plunged into darkness, rioting in the streets, etc.
As it turned out, there was no need for worry. With nary a hitch, in exactly three hours, the time claimed by Toyota, the little eco-car was fully charged and ready to roll on electrical power alone. (If I had a 220-volt hookup in my garage, a full recharge would have only consumed 90 minutes of my time.) Not very far, admittedly: 13.9 miles, to be exact, before intervention by the standard hybrid gas-electric setup. But the 2010 PHV is essentially a global demo, so we can expect a longer range when the real-world models start arriving at dealerships, some time in 2012.
Apart from the battery packs, there are other differences between the two Priuses, starting with price. Current estimates are around $27K for the dealer-ready PHV, compared to $23K or so for a standard Prius II, but these figures will doubtless evolve, along with the technology. Among the other, lesser details that distinguish the PHV are, on the outside, the unique emblems, the lateral decals that shout “Plug-In Hybrid” in loud electric-blue letters, the lid of the battery charger port (and of course the charger port itself), and the silver accents on the car’s door handles, external mirrors, and rear liftgate. Inside, activated by a “mode” button on the steering wheel, is a somewhat cluttered dashboard display of speed, fuel, and transmission info: the comparative ratio of EV driving (when the car is in all-electric mode) to normal hybrid driving; how much farther you can go on electrical power alone; the condition of the battery; your distance to empty; your average m.p.g.; etc.
Some of this is useful, some of it isn’t, and it’s mostly too much of a distraction, like all such screens, about which I’m notoriously old-fogeyish. The busy display was especially distracting to me as a neophyte Prius-driver who’d forgotten, if he ever knew, that in the Prius ordinary gauges are, well, nonexistent: In front of the driver is the steering wheel and a blank expanse of hard plastic and that’s it. The info center is in the long low louver at the top of the dash. I found this counterintuitive, but you get used to anything, and sure enough I did, after a couple of days.
Another annoyance for which there seemed to be no good reason was the cheesy little transmission shifter apparently designed for the itty-bitty hands of children or gnomes–and while I’m grousing about the transmission, how about the loud cheep-cheep that sounds every time you shift into Reverse? It’s not audible outside, where it might actually be needed in parking lots and schoolyards, but it’s deafening inside the car, where it most definitely isn’t needed, at least not after you’ve sorted out which gear you’re in, which shouldn’t take more than a couple of seconds (if it does, your driving days are coming to an end, boyo).
That transmission is a CVT, by the way, as in the standard car. “Park” is a button on the dash and there’s a “B” position for engine braking. Overall, the tranny performs well enough–and this leads me to the overall performance of the PHV, if “performance” is the word I want, because with the 300 extra lbs over the standard Prius, thanks to the heavier lithium-ion batteries (which take up more room under the cargo deck in the back), this car is no canyon-carver. The main advantage of lithium-ion batteries may be a longer electric-only driving range, but performance suffers: If I ever made it from 0 to 60 in under 11 seconds, I was really hauling the freight, and the little 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine sounded definitely unhappy about it. As in the regular car, this engine is paired with an electric motor and an electrical systems generator through the CVT, the ensemble good for a total of 134 horsepower, a modest figure these days but adequate to get the job done. There are two performance modes, Eco for Economy and Power for–you guessed it. I detected little difference between them.
Still, I had no complaints about the car’s cruising capabilities once the merging was over and we were on the highway. It’s comfortable enough, although road noise was higher than expected, no doubt due to the low-rolling resistance tires: fuel economy’s the name of the game, and everything is geared to that end. (There’s no spare tire, by the way, because of the amount of space devoted to the lithium-ion batteries; if you have a flat, you make do with a spray can of do-it-yourself tire goo, thoughtfully supplied.) Braking was good, with no apparent fade, and the steering, although decidedly over-boosted, wasn’t as numb as some. Visibility was excellent, with a generous greenhouse of glass all around. However, the driver’s seat was excessively bolstered for my taste and, fiddle with the seat controls (manual on my car) as I might, the driving position seemed oddly misaligned with the steering wheel, as if I were in an ejector seat that was about to blow. Had it done so, I wouldn’t have shot up very far, because the PHV doesn’t come with the solar-panel moonroof available on the regular car, but equipment otherwise is generous, and well endowed in the safety department, as you might expect: four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (the previous-generation Prius was saddled with rear drums), stability/traction control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags, and for the driver, a nice little knee airbag. Pre-collision and lane-departure warning systems are optional. Interior space is good: a hatchback by definition has more storage capacity than a sedan, although I thought headroom felt a bit tight.
But never mind all that ordinary-car stuff. The big thrill for me was taking off in electric-only mode, after the previously mentioned battery-charging session, and cruising silently along the road using not a drop of gasoline. Not a drop! Take that, Saudi Arabia! This state of nirvana continued until I was on the Interstate, by which time my EV cruising range had dropped to under 10 miles. Acceleration up the on-ramp seemed actually steadier and more seamless under all-electric power than with the standard gasoline-electric hybrid setup, but as soon as my speed hit 63 m.p.h., the regular hybrid combo stepped in, and the electric power charge dwindled until my 13.9 miles were up. At that point, the little green “EV” icon on the dash display winked off, informing me that I was now driving an ordinary Prius again.
And yet I wasn’t, because even though the stored battery power was used up, that limited infusion of electric-only power was enough to boost my overall mileage to-wait for it–over 65 m.p.g., soaring to near 100 on the downhill grades, according to the (possibly optimistic) dash info readout: sci-fi territory for me, and I was properly awe-struck. (The standard Prius is EPA-rated at 51/48 m.p.g. city/highway.) Around town, if you just take short trips, this could be the ideal car, easily getting 70+ m.p.g.; and with a full battery charge, well, the sky’s the limit. Or rather, with the current car, 13.9 miles is.
The ultimate goal of a plug-in car, as I see it, is pretty basic: to provide an electric vehicle with a decent cruising range and zero emissions. This is the arena into which Nissan and GM, with their respective Leaf and Volt, have jumped feet first. Both these cars offer far more electricity-only potential range than the current Prius PHV–but I stress the “current.” When Toyota rolls it out for real, the electricity-only range will no doubt have been substantially lengthened. The Prius PHV in its present iteration has a 5.3-kilowatt-hour battery pack (up from the regular Prius’ 1.3 kWh capacity), compared to the 24-kilowatt-hour pack and consequent 100-mile range of the Nissan Leaf, but this is a high-priority area of R&D, in which things are changing fast. Only five years ago I’d have laughed myself silly, or at least chuckled doubtfully, if you’d told me I’d be setting off on my commute today in an electric car.
So I predict that, when you stroll onto the lot of your Toyota dealership in a couple of years, the Prius PHV on offer will be something that Toyota, a famously cautious company, will be confident can go up against the Volt and Leaf and all other comers–and win. In short, this is very much a work in progress. Signs so far are promising; stay tuned. The future is just around the corner.