2012 Toyota Prius Plugin A modest route to the electric future …

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

Plugging in an electric car by a city apartment is an extended challenge.

The hybrid’s future has arrived, except it’s frozen stuck in one of New England’s more extreme winters.

I don’t mean literally stuck, like when our 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in trapped itself in an inch of snow. Rather, the cold weather served a back-to-earth reminder that gas-electric hybrids and their brainy powertrain computers simply have to keep the engine running.

The Prius Plug-in is one of three new Prii (Toyota’s taking votes for an official plural) set to go on sale late this year and early next. The average Prius can’t go more than a half-mile on electric power, but our decaled prototype claims a 13-mile battery range and fuel economy of nearly 100 mpg on short trips. Except it’s January, and those numbers aren’t going to happen.

A snowstorm caused our jerry-rigged charging station to short out.

Hybrid drivers living here should expect their stupendous mileage numbers to drop to more average levels in winter, since the coolant and catalytic converter have to be kept warm to maximize performance and minimize emissions. Low temperatures, inclines, and speeds over 60 mph all work against the Prius Plug-in. The Chevrolet Volt also forces its engine to run in cold weather, even with the batteries fully charged.

Toyota, however, isn’t giving us a technological marvel. A123 Systems of Watertown has been selling $10,000 plug-in conversion kits for the second-generation Prius since 2008. Select dealers including Westboro Toyota have installed hundreds nationwide, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is running four of them.

Toyota’s specifications are close to those of the converted models. Three lithium-ion battery packs, including one in the spare tire well (Toyota says it will have a single pack on the production car) are rated at about 3 kWh and replace the standard 1.3-kWh nickel metal-hydride unit. That adds about 200 pounds to the already light 3,042-pound curb weight, and isn’t at all noticeable since the electric motor provides greater power.

Charging takes about three hours on a 120-volt plug, or half that on 240 volts.

Toyota has been lending 600 Prius Plug-in models to journalists, companies, and other organizations worldwide, including the Massachusetts Port Authority. and most recently, for Zipcar customers in Boston and Cambridge. About 150 of the cars are being circulated throughout the US, and all of them have black boxes recording fuel consumption data which Toyota will share on its website in February.

In my log entry, Toyota should find a short-circuit at 1:43 a.m. on Jan. 12, right as a heavy snowfall was blanketing Boston. Lacking a covered garage or an external outlet, I ran a medium-gauge extension cord out my kitchen window and dangled it three stories off a balcony.

Snowflakes nestled their way in between the contacts, and click! lights out.

Some electrical tape would have helped, but I got lazy. Even though charging the Prius is equivalent to running a toaster for three hours, Toyota doesn’t recommend using extension cords at all. City-dwellers, your only option is garage parking.

Because unless you’ve got a snug connection 10 feet away, plug-in hybrids won’t take to jerry-rigging. And if someone is bold enough to steal the light off my bike, they’ll certainly hawk that Prius charger on eBay the next morning.

With temperatures hovering around 25 degrees, I couldn’t nudge the Prius Plug-in past an indicated 53 mpg after 325 miles of mixed city and highway driving. Save for one day, the car was plugged in every time at home and next to the Globe loading docks. My commute to work is only nine miles, but the engine always ran about half the time, even after the car was plenty warm.

Like the regular Prius, the electric motor has only enough kick for light acceleration. But on a full charge one night, I tore up Route 24 for 10 dreamy, gas-free minutes. On warmer days, I saw eight to 10 miles of electric-only operation at best. A 10-mile trip to Costco netted about 96 mpg, but dropped to 56 on the way back with the battery drained.

The last time I tested a third-generation Prius, I averaged 51 mpg in the middle of July.

Besides the battery connection on the front left fender and the Plug-in Hybrid badges, there’s little to distinguish this model from the average Prius. A tiny LED on the dash lights up when the car is charging, and the green LCD instrument panel shows an estimated EV range next to the battery icon. Among the geeky fuel economy bar graphs is a new display that shows how often the Prius runs on its battery alone.

After a full week, I scored 22 percent.

Toyota Crown Electric Cars

Instead of building a dramatic plug-in hybrid or blowing everything on an all-electric car, Toyota has made modest improvements to an already impressive car while expanding its hybrid lineup at minimum cost. The minivan-like Prius V goes on sale this summer, while a compact two-door Prius C and this Plug-in model go on sale in the first months of 2012. From here on out, aggressive pricing and production volume will do the real talking, not the gallon or two of gas I might have saved.

The Chevrolet Volt, despite winning three major Car of the Year awards, is on sale in only six states, costs a whopping $41,000, and may not hit over 10,000 units this year. At $33,600, the Nissan Leaf is a similar story, and needs an expensive home charging unit or the rare public station to keep it running. Toyota hasn’t announced pricing, but said the premium over a standard Prius would be less than $10,000.

While limited battery capacity makes it eligible for only a third of the maximum $7,500 federal tax credit that Volt and Leaf owners receive, we estimate the Prius Plug-in will undercut the Volt by a few thousand and go about even with the Leaf.

Hopefully, Toyota’s not done yet. There’s nowhere to store the bulky charging cord, no way to tell the car’s charging status when it’s off, and the LCD display could do a better job of showing when the gas engine is running. It’s an experiment, and for many people living in cities, a stretch of the imagination to work properly.

But if Toyota can build enough of them, the company’s staunchly conservative culture could see it lead yet another niche.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in

THE BASICS Price, estimated: $30,000 Fuel economy, EPA estimated: N/A. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 53 mpg Drivetrain: 1.8-liter I-4, 60 kW electric motor, 3-kWh lithium-ion battery, CVT, front-engine, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback.

THE SPECIFICS Horsepower: N/A. Torque: N/A. Overall length: 175.6 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 58.7 in. Width: 68.7 in. Curb weight: 3,242 lbs. (estimated)

THE GOOD: Quiet, smooth, and sky-high gas mileage

THE BAD: Difficult to maintain electric mode, not beneficial to city dwellers, still drives like a Prius

THE BOTTOM LINE: Modest improvements make a great hybrid better – at a cost

Toyota Crown Electric Cars
Toyota Crown Electric Cars
Toyota Crown Electric Cars

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