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Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

Plug-in Toyota will help bolster the Prius brand

Toyota will sell a plug-in Prius in 2012 that will go 13 miles (Steven Cole Smith, Toyota )

March 25, 2011 | By Steven Cole Smith. AUTOMOTIVE

The most expensive part of designing and building a new vehicle is not what you see — the body and the interior — but what’s underneath: The basic platform, consisting of the chassis, the engine and the transmission.

So it seems a little strange that considering the billions invested in developing the Toyota Prius hybrid, Toyota has produced only one model from that platform in the past 10 years: The Prius sedan. At the Detroit and Chicago auto shows earlier this year, Toyota began a clever marketing campaign to kick off the concept by asking consumers what the plural of Prius should be, because soon, there will be four models, not just one. The winner was Prii, by the way, but more important is what those multiple models will be: The regular, third-generation Prius sedan we have now; the Prius V, which is basically a Prius station wagon; the Prius C, which is a sporty hatchback, and the Prius PHV, or Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle.

Since February, Toyota has had 84 early prototype (that means experimental) Prius PHVs on the road, and we spent a week with one. It should be very similar to what you’ll be able to buy in early 2012, assuming that production isn’t slowed by the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, where the Prius is built. Toyota announced a delay in the introduction of the Prius V, but has already resumed production of the regular Prius.

So what’s the difference in the regular Prius and the Prius PHV? Like the new Chevrolet Volt, the PHV will operate like a regular gas-electric hybrid, but you can plug it in to household current to add to vehicle electric-only range. Our PHV took about three hours hooked up to a regular 110-volt outlet to completely charge, and then was good for about 13 miles of electric-only travel.

The Volt has a longer electric-only range, but takes much longer to recharge. The bottom line with the Prius PHV: If your daily commute is less than 13 miles, the Prius can make it without burning any gasoline.

Well, almost: In the economy mode, which extends battery life, acceleration is very gradual. Twice during the initial 13-mile all-electric drive, I had to punch the accelerator hard for more speed, both times when I pulled out into fast-moving traffic. The 1.8-liter gas engine ran for a total of about 30 seconds.

Otherwise, the Prius PHV can travel on just the electric motor up to about 60 mph, but it takes a long time to get there.

The Prius PHV uses a more sophisticated 288-cell lithium-ion battery, as opposed to the nickel-metal hydride battery back in the regular Prius. Lithium-ion doesn’t have a memory, meaning you don’t have to train the battery like nickel-metal hydride to accept full charges. Toyota says the materials to make lithium-ion batteries costs less than nickel-metal hydride, but production costs are greater.

Once the Prius PHV runs out of pure-battery power, it operates like any other Prius. Toyota hasn’t released mileage figures, but even after the 13-mile runs using the battery, I averaged 53.7 mpg, driving very conservatively. With the Volt, expect to average 35 mpg after the batteries are depleted.

This extra battery capacity adds weight, and takes up trunk space — a placard in the PHV said that if you get a flat tire, call roadside assistance, as there is no room for a spare. On the road, you feel the extra weight, especially in corners, but the average Prius driver won’t notice much difference. Outside, the only distinctin is an extra little panel in front of the driver’s door that pops open for the plug — it looks just like the fuel-filler door at the rear of the car.

Toyota hasn’t released prices for the Prius PHV, and won’t for a while, but the best guess is it could add maybe $3,500 to the price. If going 13 miles on pure electricity is meaningful to you, it’s worth it. But if you drive, say, 100 miles a day, it may not be.

Regardless, it shows that Toyota isn’t sitting idle. Aside from the weight and the projected price, there is no downside to the Prius PHV.

2012 Toyota Prius PHV prototype

Base price: $24,000 (estimated)

Price as tested: $31,000 (estimated)

EPA rating: Not yet rated.

Engine: 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine with electric motor.

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