2012 Toyota Prius PlugIn Highroads

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Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

Prius plug-in moves Toyota toward an electric future

BY Jim Prueter

These days it seems like plug-in electric vehicles are getting all the attention, with new offerings like Chevrolet’s Volt and Nissan’s all-electric LEAF.

While Toyota Motor Company’s Prius remains the best-selling hybrid, offering by far the industry’s leading fuel economy, Toyota recently announced plans to expand the popular Prius “family tree” from the existing one model to four. It will include a Prius wagon and a Prius plug-in (PHV).

To help with product testing, the automaker recently distributed 500 prototype Prius plug-in hybrids worldwide, including 150 in the U.S. One of those landed on my driveway.

So exactly how is the Prius PHV different than the standard-issue Prius? The Prius PHV actually uses the same electric motor and gasoline engine as a normal Prius, but it runs on a higher voltage, so the motor creates more power. The nickel-metal hydride battery pack has been swapped out for a heavier, pricier lithium ion one; it sits under the rear floor, which is raised a bit higher to accommodate its larger size.

When fully charged, which takes just two to three hours on a standard 110/120-volt household outlet or 90 minutes on a 220-volt outlet (as compared to six to eight hours or more on a 220-volt outlet for all-electric cars like the LEAF), the Prius PHV will travel up to 13 miles on battery power alone. Comparatively, Chevrolet’s new Volt offers 25 to 50 miles of pure electric driving with the gasoline engine assisting only occasionally in propelling the car, whereas the LEAF offers 68 to 110 miles of electric-only driving.

For the Prius PHV, the recharge process couldn’t be easier: just pop open what looks like a conventional gasoline filler flap on the driver’s side front fender, snap the thick round plug into the plug-in receptacle, and plug the other end into any standard household outlet.

If you feather-touch the accelerator pedal, you can reach speeds up to 62 mph using electricity alone. A heavier touch will discontinue the battery-only mode and fire up the 98-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder internal-combustion gasoline engine.

In severe weather climates, where temperatures are significantly below freezing or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, electric-only range is expected to be less than 13 miles. Yet, even in ideal moderate Arizona temperatures, our tester never performed all 13 electric-only miles that Toyota claims possible.

An instrument panel readout, different than that on a regular Prius hybrid, continually counts down the remaining battery-only miles as they are consumed. Once the electric-only miles are exhausted, the Prius automatically switches back to gasoline and behaves like a normal Prius hybrid, same performance, same economy.

Drivers have a choice of three modes: “power” for quicker performance, “normal” for expected driving performance and “eco,” where acceleration is noticeably slower and the gas engine less likely to fire up and add power.

Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

Visual differences separating our PHV from a standard Prius include silver paint on the outside mirrors, door handles and tailgate, and the large blue and white “PLUG-IN-HYBRID” wording, stripes and graphics on the lower side doors.

During our week of testing that included daily battery recharges, we averaged an impressive 64 mpg. My initial impression was, “what’s the big deal about 13 miles of electric driving range? Isn’t it a bit pointless?” Not really, because any trip or errand less than 13 miles becomes practically free, since electricity is so cheap.

If your driving needs are short errands, you could drive days and never burn a drop of gas as long as you recharge between trips.

While Toyota won’t name the price, the Prius PHV is expected to cost thousands more than a regular Prius hybrid, which starts at $23,050, but will be cheaper than the $40,000 Volt. They also won’t say exactly when it will go on sale, but they continue to collect feedback and data on driving and recharging patterns from the 500 prototypes currently in service worldwide.

Toyota says the viability of plug-in technology can depend on an individual customer’s geographic location, drive cycle, and access to charging facilities. We’re guessing that the Pruis PHV is yet another step toward improved mileage technologies we’ll continue to see developed and offered to the public.

Overall, we were impressed with the fuel economy delivered by the Prius PHV, and if Toyota doesn’t overprice it — and you don’t mind the frequent recharging — there’s little reason not to consider it if you are in the market for a high-mileage compact five-passenger sedan.

JIM PRUETER . an automotive writer based in Phoenix, has provided reviews and advice about cars for more than 20 year

Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

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