Nearly a decade and a half after its 1997 launch in Japan, the Toyota Prius is the undisputed king of hybrid vehicles. If someone shows you the silhouette of a Prius, you likely know the shape. The Prius has sold more copies in its history than all of its competitors combined. In fact, the Prius continues to outsell its combined competitive set, even today. But is it the king of the plug-in vehicles as well? We spent a week one of the newest members of the Prius family, the Prius Plug-in, to see how it stacked up against both the regular Prius and its most obvious competitor, the Chevrolet Volt.
First, let’s clarify that the Prius Plug-in and Chevrolet Volt do not technically share the same classification. The Prius Plug-in is considered a “plug-in hybrid,” or PHEV. The Chevrolet Volt is considered an “extended-range electric vehicle,” or E-REV. Though conceptually they may sound similar (cars with batteries, electric motors, and gasoline engines), the execution is completely different. They kind of do the same thing, but get there in very different ways.
Except under very limited circumstances, the Volt does not have a direct connection between its gasoline engine and the driving wheels. When there is charge in its 16 kWh battery pack, the care is completely powered by batteries. The engine will not run under any circumstances, unless it fears that it has been too long since it’s run, or the gasoline’s weighted average age is getting long in the tooth (we’re talking potentially months between engine starts, in theory). Floor the accelerator in the Volt, and you get everything you need from the electric motor only. Once the Volt’s battery pack is depleted and the car moves to charge sustaining mode (with the gasoline engine running), it still uses the electric motor and batteries to move the car.
In contrast, the Prius Plug-in has a much smaller battery (a little over a quarter of the Volt’s capacity) and a weaker electric motor. The Prius’ electric motor does not have enough output to propel the car at full performance. This means that the gasoline engine will have to run, even with the car in EV Mode, at highway speeds (roughly 65 mph and above), during rapid acceleration, and when the car’s engine is below its optimal operating temperature. So, in the Prius Plug-in, “EV Mode” is something of a misnomer, because you’re bound to hear the gasoline engine buzzing from time to time, even before the car exhausts its handful of allotted EV miles.
Speaking of a handful of EV miles, by virtue of its smaller battery, the Prius Plug-in is expected to get about 15 miles of all-electric driving. Each morning after a night of charging, the car would show 11 or 12 miles of EV range on the instrument cluster. Unlike in the Volt, there’s no clear summary of which miles you drove were EV miles versus gasoline-fueled miles, so for the first few days, I was tricked into thinking that I was getting 18 or 19 miles of EV range. (Silly me; I heard the engine running from time to time, so should have known that the miles didn’t exactly count as “EV” miles.) Eventually, I noticed that the lifetime breakdown of EV/gasoline miles was stuck at 7% EV/93% gasoline, and after paying more attention to the total number of EV miles, realized it wasn’t increasing as much as I was assuming that it was.
Fundamentally, the Prius Plug-in offers a nearly identical driving experience to the standard Prius, with the exception being that the regular car’s EV mode-killing hair trigger is far less sensitive. This means that the car’s steering is vague and artificially disconnected from the road (it’s electrically-assisted, of course) and its brakes will stop you, but you will sometimes feel a transition between regenerative braking (which occurs in the first portion of the pedal’s travel) and friction braking (in the latter part of the pedal’s travel), and that can be disconcerting if you’re not expecting it. The interior seats five, although rear-seat space is not huge. Nonetheless, it is nice to have that center-rear seat available in a pinch (and without the Volt’s battery/console splitting the rear seat in two, you or your kids can slide across the seat from one side to another if necessary.
Charging the Prius Plug-in is a piece of cake. It takes about three hours to fully charge an “empty” battery pack using the included 120-volt charger. A 240-volt line, which we tried at one public charging station, will charge the car in about half the time. Its charge time is so short (for instance, the Volt takes about 10 hours at 120 volts) because its battery simply is not of a very high capacity. The charge port is located on the rear passenger side of the car, approximately opposite the gas cap. Though it helps with the Prius Plug-in’s symmetry, most EV charge stations (not to mention garages) are easier to access by pulling in instead of backing in. A charge port at the front of the car like the Leaf (grille area) or Volt (left-front fender) would be better.
This tester had Toyota’s new Entune system, and it works exactly as well as the system in the Camry Hybrid that I reviewed a few weeks earlier. To re-hash:
Toyota’s new Entune infotainment system…uses a Bluetooth-paired cell phone (an iPhone 4S in my case) to provide Internet radio from iHeartRadio and Pandora, plus OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, Bing search, sports scores, stock prices, weather, and traffic. In my tests, the services all worked pretty well, though there is a definite lag as data (be it weather information or streaming Internet radio) loads to the car over your data connection. In order to use Entune, you have to install the app on your smartphone and register for the service. You then have to open the app on your phone, which creates the data-sharing connection between it and your Toyota. Once initiated, Entune can run in the background (so you can make a phone call, for instance), but it’s a little cumbersome to require the app to be open in order to use it.
One thing that I experienced with Entune in both the Camry and Prius was that occasionally, I could not hear any sound coming from the car’s stereo for Bluetooth audio (either the regular variety or Pandora/iHeartRadio via Entune). As I eventually learned, the phone’s volume cannot be lowered, or no sound will come from the car stereo. It seemed odd for what is effectively a data connection to dictate the output volume of the car stereo; I’m not sure if this is an issue specific to the iPhone or if it’s an Entune issue, but I do not recall experiencing something similar in other vehicles that had Bluetooth streaming audio capabilities.
Perhaps the Prius Plug-in’s greatest competition is intramural. Unless most of your trips are very short, it barely pays to step up to the Plug-in model instead of the regular Prius. The EPA-run fueleconomy.gov site actually does a nice job of breaking down the cost per mile of the Prius, Prius Plug-in, and Volt in different scenarios. The bottom line is that the Plug-in would cost $1.51 to drive 25 miles, while the regular Prius would cost $1.86. Gasoline usage would be 0.5 gallons vs. 0.8 gallons, respectively. Gasoline economy ratings after the small 4.4 kWh battery is depleted are nearly identical, at 51/48/50 city/highway/combined for the regular Prius and 51/49/50 for the Plug-in.
Comparing the Prius Plug-in to the Volt involves a different thought process. With the Volt’s superior EV range but sub-par gasoline efficiency, your typical commuting patterns will be a major factor in deciding which to purchase, all other things being equal. If you drive 40-45 miles (or less) per day, the Volt will barely use any gasoline, while the Prius will use about a gallon. If you typically drive more than that, the Prius’ (either the regular or Plug-in’s) superior gasoline efficiency (50 mpg vs. 37 mpg) will make it much cheaper to operate.
A quick case study: when I last reviewed a 2012 Volt, I drove the car from the Philadelphia area to the Boston area and back, and could not find a convenient public charging spot, so over 95 percent of the 831.6-mile trip used gasoline, at about 34 mpg. Don’t forget that the Volt requires premium fuel too – while the Prius is content with regular unleaded. That same trip in the Prius Plug-in would have been almost 98 percent gasoline-only, but at 50 mpg (and assuming the current regular unleaded price of $3.879 per gallon) would have cost $63.61 for 820 miles (not counting 11.6 miles of EV driving). The Volt, assuming $4.259 per gallon for premium and 35 mpg, would cost $98.29 for its documented 23.08 gallons of fuel used. That extra cost ($34.68, not counting that the Volt used a few more kWh of electricity before the trip) represents a not-insignificant 54.5 percent higher cost per mile for long trips in a Volt vs. a Prius Plug-in.
Of course, there are other reasons besides cost (or cost per mile) to choose one car over another. The Volt is a more engaging drive, with a more powerful motor and good off-the-line punch. Its all-LCD instrumentation is easier to read and looks more modern than what you’ll find in the Prius. The 2013 Volt will include GM’s very good MyLink infotainment software, which is a close competitor to Toyota’s Entune, but 2012 Volts do not have MyLink yet. Nor do they even have Bluetooth streaming audio.
Purchase price is, of course, another consideration. Make no mistake: the Prius and Volt are both cheap cars with very expensive batteries and drivetrains under their skin. In some ways, the Prius Plug-in feels like it is less expensive than the Volt. The doors have an alarming echo when you close them. The headliner is made of furry cardboard. The puny wheels and tires (195/65-15s) make it look a bit low-rent. But the prices are actually very close to one another, much to my surprise. When you can buy a base Prius for $24,795 (apparently Toyota has dropped the price-leader Prius One), a $40,000 Prius is a bit alarming.
A more fair comparison is between a top-of-the-line regular Prius Five equipped with the Advanced Technology Package. That car’s MRSP (including delivery) is $34,920. Our test Prius Plug-in had an MSRP of $40,628, which is a hefty premium of $5,708. Offsetting some of that cost is a $2,500 tax credit that the Plug-in gets, but the standard Prius no longer does. Our friends at TrueDelta.com, always helpful in sorting out pricing comparisons, show that the Prius Plug-in is $3,425 more expensive than the Prius Five when accounting for feature differences. Interestingly, it’s also slightly more expensive ($564) than the Chevrolet Volt when accounting for feature differences (including the Volt’s $7,500 tax credit).
My take on the Prius is that the car was designed primarily for efficient motoring. It does that better than almost any car you can buy today. For some people, that’s great, because it’s all they care about. For others, that economy-above-all-else mindset results in a car that compromises performance, handling, and comfort at the altar of fuel economy. But if you really want to save fuel and have an aversion to diesels, go with the traditional Prius and skip the Plug-in. The economics of the Volt are hard enough to justify; the economics of the Prius Plug-in are even more difficult.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.
Note: sorry about the blue hue in the photos; that’s my punishment for wearing sunglasses while taking them, and for not looking at the photos on a computer before returning the car.