Since 1997, the Toyota Prius has been the heralded and hated automotive symbol of the “green’ movement. It has polarized opinions across the board, from politicians to auto purists, and served as the butt for many a joke. But despite its cemented place in popular culture, its industry-leading fuel economy, and its runaway sales success, the underlying feeling has always been that Toyota could and should do more. After all, the standard Toyota Prius, referred to now as the Prius liftback, has matured into its third generation and gone on to spawn two other iterations: the diminutive Prius C and the more family-focused Prius V. Toyota has answered the call, adding another member to the Prius family with the Prius Plug-in, albeit one that is unabashedly more derivative of its source material than its siblings.
So just how different? From afar you’d be hard pressed to spot the difference but the devil, as they say, is in the details…
I know you
There really isn’t much to go over in the looks department when it comes to the Prius Plug-in. If you have seen the third generation Prius liftback running about town, then you pretty much have your picture painted for you. Toyota has opted to retain the Prius’ distinct look for its plug-in model both to save the expense of a redesign, and because the Prius is reportedly due for a styling overhaul sometime in 2015, so it didn’t really make sense to develop an entirely new look anyway. Either way, the Prius Plug-in’s visual similarity can either be good or bad — depending on how loudly and proudly you want to broadcast your green intentions to those around you. Other than some plug-in badging here and there and a round charge port located on the passenger side’s rear end, there is little to differentiate the Prius Plug-in from its standard counterpart.
Speaking of that charging port, Toyota has rather unwisely opted to give it a rear placement. This means that every time you wish to charge your car at a public station, be prepared to back to reach a short charging cord. Placing the plug’s charge port at the nose of the vehicle like the Nissan Leaf, or anywhere near the front, makes much more functional sense. Why automakers feel the need to emulate the “gasoline” experience with plug-ins and battery electrics remains a mystery.
All aboard the USS Prius
If you have any experience with a Toyota Prius, stepping inside the Prius Plug-in will feel familiar. That’s because much is the same, near identical even, on the inside of the plug-in member of the Prius family. The standard Prius liftback already has the dimensions to accommodate a relatively large battery pack and the Prius plug-in is no different, placing its pack at the rear of the vehicle beneath the cargo hold.
For those with no past experience with the world’s most iconic hybrid, the Prius Plug-in delivers the kind of space one generally wouldn’t associate with a hybrid vehicle. For all the jokes aimed at the Prius’ machismo, or lack thereof, it’s really not as dainty as popular culture would have you believe. Comfortably, the Prius can accommodate four taller passengers, five if you are particularly industrious and aren’t opposed to using the vehicle’s 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space, though we don’t recommend it. Pro tip: Always follow local traffic safety laws.
Traditionally, the Prius has always sported a more design-forward cabin that’s screamed more “out of this world” than “let’s save this world,” but that’s never been an issue for us; we enjoy its futuristic starship design. From the captain’s chair, excuse us, from the driver’s seat, the cabin is sectioned off by a large sloping center console that serves as home to the vehicle’s shifter and various drive control modes (more on than in a bit).
Unlike most vehicles, the Prius Plug-in houses its digital displays and instrument cluster in the middle of the dash. It’s somewhat off kilter and for those not used to it, can be a little taxing to adjust to. Here, Toyota has packed in a wealth of information from your battery level, state of charge, and of course fuel and speed. Unfortunately, it feels pretty cluttered and overwhelming at times, and having to constantly look over to the middle of the cabin becomes a chore. This is slightly offset with the inclusion of an excellent heads up display (HUD) included in our tester vehicle’s trim package, but a less convoluted cluster gauge would be appreciated for future models.
Urban command center for the eco-minded
A sophisticated car deserves sophisticated technology, and the Prius Plug-in doesn’t disappoint in this regard. In fact, think of it as a fuel-sipping computer on wheels. Our review unit featured a wealth of advanced tech features including push-to-start ignition, smart-key entry, a seven-inch touchscreen, HDD navigation, and a rearview backup camera. Just in case you were wondering, the incessant Prius backup beep is still there.
But it doesn’t stop there. Standard on the Prius Plug-in is Toyota’s Entune suite of apps, which give drivers access to various radio services like Pandora and iHeartRadio, as well as the Bing search engine, real-time stock, sports, and traffic information. Graduate to the advanced trim level and Entune includes a list of plug-in specific apps that allow you to schedule your charging times, remotely access the climate control system, and charging station maps, among others. Smartphone users can also download the Entune app and remotely activate the Prius Plug-in’s climate controls, as well as schedule and monitor charging.
Of course, drivers can also sync up their smartphones in order to utilize the vehicle’s Bluetooth audio streaming, or go about it “old-school” and directly plug in their smartphones or MP3 players into the car’s USB or AUX port.
A car with a cord
Powering the little Prius that could is the same combination of 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motors found in the standard Prius. Here, we get a combined output of 134 horsepower sent to the front wheels via a specialized continuously variable transmission (CVT).
For the most part, the Prius Plug-in retains the same powertrain as the standard vanilla Prius, where things differ, however, is the battery pack featured inside. The Plug-in Prius uses a 4.4 kWh lithium-ion battery, as opposed to the standard Prius’ 1.3 kWh nickel metal hydride variety. According to Toyota, that gives the Plug-in range of about 15 miles in electric driving mode. By comparison, the purely electric Nissan Leaf uses a 24 kWh pack good for about 73 miles on single charge, and the Chevrolet Volt’s 16 kWh pack gifts it ranges of up to 40 miles on battery juice alone.
Because of the smaller battery pack, charging times for the Prius Plug-in remain relatively low. On a standard 120-volt outlet, you can top it off in about three hours, while using a 240-volt level two charger saw that time drop to about an hour and a half.
Of course making the most out of the hybrid powertrain and battery will no doubt be your focus, and to accomplish that Toyota has given the Prius Plug-in three separate driving modes: Eco, Power, and EV. Eco mode allows the Prius to operate at maximum efficiency at the cost of responsiveness. Power mode adds more pep to the Prius, delivering an extra boost when climbing uphill or overtaking cars on the freeway. Finally, there’s EV mode, which despite its name does not simply switch the car from gasoline to battery. Instead, the driver has the ability to run off the Prius’ battery, however any sudden burst of acceleration will cause the gasoline engine to kick in. Top speed in EV mode is limited to 62 mph, but remember: sudden acceleration at any speed will fire up the engine.
While we would prefer more say in how or when the engine kicks in, it’s not something we disliked entirely. In fact, in a way, the Prius Plug-in’s EV mode almost trains you to be a more consistent driver when it comes to fuel economy, rewarding smooth, calculated increases in speed with enhanced efficiency and fuel savings. Not everyone will appreciate it, but if you’re buying a Prius for its ability to power and accelerate like the dickens then you have more pressing matters to attend to.
Dreaming while you drive
Greenies often pay no mind the Prius’ plebeian road manners, while automotive purists miss the mark entirely, wanting more from a vehicle that was never meant to deliver anything close to an engaging ride. We happen to fall somewhere in the middle. For lack of a better term, the Prius Plug-in, like the Prius liftback, features tolerable handling.
At its worst the Prius Plug-in’s handling feels boxy and dull, at its best, sleepy and lethargic. Does it matter? Not really. Toyota has opted for driving efficiency over ecstasy, frugality over fun. And it’s been working for over a decade now. Thankfully, it’s spacious cabin, tech features, low rolling-resistance tires, and spacious accommodations help us forget that it’s not the most fun car to drive.
In the end, it all boils down to one thing: value. This is where things really start to get interesting. The base price for the Prius Plug-in starts at $32,000. Our top-shelf review unit with virtually everything optioned in bumps that right up to a similarly equipped Volt and Leaf at $40,676 (including a $760 delivery fee). When it comes to branding cache, no other hybrid or alternative vehicle can touch the Prius. The problem here is that Prius Plug-in, apart from its limited battery range, does little to warrant its rather hefty asking price, especially when you consider that the standard 2012 Prius, when fully maxed out, costs just under $30,000 and garners a class-leading 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway fuel economy.
Then there is the Volt to consider. Even though Plug-in hybrids are still few in number, when given the option of the Prius Plug-in and the Volt, we can’t see it being much of a competition (save for some misguided grudge against the Volt). For about the same price (the Volt is eligible for a larger tax credit) and higher all-electric mileage range, the question then becomes why, not if, anyone would consider the Plug-in Prius over the Volt. To be fair though, the Volt consumes more gas when it does need it: 35 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway using premium fuel.
As a mechanism for saving fuel — and even forgoing it altogether when the conditions are right — the Prius Plug-in certainly shines. Conservative drivers will likely be able to squeeze out miles aplenty in battery-only mode, but when taking into account the cost of the plug-in and the minimal mileage benefits, the reality just doesn’t live up to the eco dream. Still, we don’t see that stopping most potential customers from making the leap to the most fuel-efficient Prius money can buy.
- Plug-in charging, excellent fuel economy
- Spacious interior
- Plenty of smart tech features
- Limited electric range of 15 miles
- Expensive relative to competitors
- Dull handling