May 18, 2013
Written by Steven Macoy
Thursday, 23 February 2012 12:28
When the plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid car finally arrived, it was only natural that Toyota would deliver it. And just as naturally, it came in the guise of the familiar Prius hybrid, a popular, well-regarded high-tech economy car.
The plug-in Prius looks, rides and drives like the conventional Prius hybrid. That means this four-door hatchback has room for five, rides quietly and comfortably, and handles corners and obstacles competently. The difference is it can run up to 15 miles on electric power alone, if the owner goes to the trouble of plugging its extension cord into a conventional household outlet for at least three hours before hitting the road.
We weren’t able to extract the full fuel-economy benefit from our plug-in Prius because the gasoline engine kicks in at 62 mph, too slow for safe cruising on Interstate 84 in western Connecticut. The mileage gauge mainly hovered in the high 40s, about what we‘d expect from a regular Prius under the same conditions. Toyota says the plug-in Prius can average 87 mpg in the city, depending on recharge availability and other factors.
For those who do a lot of highway driving, a conventional Prius (51 mpg city, 48 highway) would serve at least as well, and the monthly payments would be smaller. The garden-variety Prius starts at $23,015, while the two plug-in versions, Base and Advanced, cost $32,000 and $39,525, respectively.
The car in Toyota’s sights apparently is the slow-selling but intriguing Chevrolet Volt, which has a number of advantages over Toyota’s entry. For one thing, it can go 30 to 40 miles on a charge, and it can cruise at highway speeds in electric-only mode. On the other hand, its much bigger battery requires a charging time to match — in our experience, eight to 10 hours — and the dressed-up 2011 Volt we test-drove last year had a list price of $44,680.
Uncle Sam helps Volt buyers by providing a $7,500 tax credit, compared with an expected $2,500 for the plug-in Prius. And while the Prius is pleasant enough to drive, it’s not as refined and athletic as the Volt.
The Prius, like the Volt, has a charging port under a small door on the left front fender. On both cars, we had trouble with the charging equipment. The Volt’s plug-in unit broke and we had to have a replacement delivered; the Prius’ charger access door wouldn’t snap shut. Problems such as these suggest buyers of plug-in cars should be wary of “bugs.”
A dozen or so plug-in models, from the all-electric Nissan Leaf to the hybrid plug-in Prius to the still-unique Volt, will be returning or debuting this year. Our feeling is that plug-ins will need more range and faster charging times to truly catch the interest of impatient American drivers, even with $5-a-gallon gasoline on the near horizon. Analysts expect 2012 to be a make-or-break year for the plug-in breed, so stay tuned.
Engine: 1.8-liter hybrid inline Four/60-kilowatt electric motor, 134 horsepower combined, 105 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: Continuously variable
Weight: 3,165 lb.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
Wheels: 15x6-inch alloy
Tires: P195/65R15 all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 21.6 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 40 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons
Fuel economy: 87 mpg city, 49 highway
Fuel type: Regular
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