By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
“Car guys” hate the Prius. I am a car guy. Therefore, I ought to hate the Prius, too.
But it is winning me over. God help me.
It all began the day after the new-for-2013 plug-in Prius arrived. This is the latest version of the famous hybrid from Toyota. Unlike the one we all know about, this one’s not a closed-loop system. In addition to making its own electricity (by burning gas, alas) this one can also take on electricity — via a cord connected to any common household 110V wall outlet — and so burns no gas at all.
At least, not until you run down the battery pack the Prius carries under the back seats. It’s a two-stage battery. One “layer” is like the battery in the regular Prius, which is part of the internal feedback loop: Gas engine-generator-battery-electric motor. But there’s another “layer” — the one charged up by your 110V wall outlet. Top it off and you can run entirely in electric mode at speeds well into the low 60 MPH range and for close to 15 miles without burning much, if any gas at all.
I know, because I did it.
Which is why I am saying nice things about this Prius — something I thought as unlikely as my developing a liking for mimes or rap music.
Mind: It is not perfection.
But it is much, much better.
WHAT IT IS
The plug-in Prius is a new version of the Prius hybrid hatchback sedan that can be “topped off” with electricity from any household 110V outlet. Once fully charged up, you can drive for much longer in EV — electric vehicle — mode and at much higher speeds (up to about 62 MPH) than is possible in the regular Prius. It is possible — depending on the length of your commute — to burn no gas at all during your drive. And even if you do burn some gas along the way, you’ll burn significantly less gas than you would in the standard model Prius.
Of course, nothing’s free in this life. The plug-in Prius costs $8,000 more to start than the regular Prius: $32,000 vs. $24,000. Still, the math could very conceivably work itself out in your favor — and much sooner — than it might if you bought the regular Prius.
Much less vs. a non-hybrid car in this unsettling environment of $4 a gallon gas today — and maybe $6 gas tomorrow.
The base $32k version of the plug-in Prius comes with AC, stamped steel fifteen inch wheels, power windows, locks and cruise control, GPS navigation with touchscreen display, Bluetooth wireless and a pretty good six-speaker audio system — all the necessaries and then some.
There is also an Advanced trim, which adds blue-tint LED headlights, Adaptive cruise control (automatically slows the car if traffic slows, then automatically resumes your pre-set speed), premium JBL audio with eight speakers, nicer interior materials and some exterior styling tweaks.
This version of the plug-in Prius carries a much higher MSRP: $39,525 — which upsets the math (more on this below) and also puts it in a more precarious competitive position relative to GM’s Volt, which also starts at nearly $40,000.
Though Toyota sold a few plug-ins last year (model year 2012) this year (model year 2013) is the first year the plug-in Prius is available nationwide.
Exceptionally high gas mileage (I averaged in the low 60s — the way I drive).
Ability to get you there burning no gas at all.
The math can make sense — for the base $32k version, at least.
Prius has the longest track record of any hybrid. It’s known to not be a problem-prone POS.
High resale value.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Encounter uphills and watch the range remaining number go down like the gas gauge needle in a ’70 Hemi ‘Cuda.
If you can’t plug-in at work (or wherever you’re going) you’ll probably be burning gas on the way back.
Very cold (and very hot) weather may cut short EV-only range, too.
Hard to make an economical case for the $40k Advanced version.
UNDER THE HOOD
In addition to the high-efficiency 1.8 liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine that’s used in all Prius models for both propulsion and as a kind of carry-it-with-you generator (to keep the batteries charged up) the plug-in Prius has additional battery capacity — and a different type of battery: Lithium-ion vs. nickel metal hydride (NiMH). The 4.4 kWh battery, when fully charged up, allows for up to about 14 miles of operation in electric vehicle (EV) mode at road speeds as high as 62 MPH.
The standard Prius can only creep along in EV mode at speeds of 25 MPH or less — and for much shorter distances before the gas engine kicks back in.
The plug-in receptacle for the charge cord is located on the passenger-side rear quarter panel. There’s a 24-foot charging cable in the trunk, with a gun-type handle designed to resemble a conventional gas pump handle. Adjacent to the plug-in receptacle, you’ll find a small indicator light that illuminates while the car is charging up. It automatically turns off when the batteries are fully topped off — which takes about three hours using any standard 110V household outlet. Toyota also sells a fast-charger which works off 240V current (such as a dryer outlet). This cuts the recharge time down to about an hour.
Gas mileage is potentially exceptional — and always very good.
If you can operate primarily on the externally-charged lithium-ion batteries (i.e., avoid using the on-board gas engine to charge them) you can achieve essentially infinite MPGs. It is hard to nail down an exact number, though, because the amount of time the vehicle can run in EV-only mode will vary tremendously depending on how far you drive, how you drive and where you drive (more on this in a moment).
EPA says the plug-in Prius gives 95 MPG in “electricity + gasoline” mode and 50 MPG when burning gas (EV mode off).
I averaged 62 MPG, according to the car’s computer. That’s pretty solid. However, the Prius could probably do much better than that. I only managed 62 MPG because of the type of driving I do. And where I drive.
I’ll get into that now.
ON THE ROAD
We live roughly 30 miles from anything — and far from the stop-and-go driving for which a hybrid like the Prius is optimized. Once I leave my driveway, it is pretty much 60-plus MPH all the way for about 15 miles, at which point you are at the top of Bent Mountain — and a 9 percent grade down Bent Mountain for about four miles, until you reach the valley floor. The outskirts of Roanoke are about eight miles farther down the road.
This sort of trip is not what the designers of the Prius had in mind: Steady high-speed driving, not a single red light, stop sign or traffic light to give the hybrid system a moment to catch its breath. All the hybrids I’ve driven so far have been wrung out by this trip, including the regular Prius — which averaged mid 40s. Which is still good, mind. Just not bug-eyed fantastic. Better than most standard cars, definitely — but not by a huge margin. Or rather, not enough of a margin to make an obvious case for itself as a way to save money vs. buying a much lower cost non-hybrid economy car capable of, say, 35 MPG.
But, the plug-Prius was different. It twice made the 15-mile trip from our house to the top of Bent Mountain without the gas engine coming on, or coming on just briefly. (Once, on a day when it was fairly cold — in the low 40s — at start-up. The other time when I drove a little faster and so depleted the battery faster.)
Both times, though, it got to the top of the mountain almost exclusively on electric drive. And once you’ve made it to the top of Bent Mountain, the inertia of rolling down the mountain puts several miles’ worth of charge back into the batteries — enough to almost make it my destination on the outskirts of the city without the gas engine providing back-up.
That impressed me. I could almost make it from home to “work” nearly 30 miles down the road burning next to no gas.
The trip back is what hurt my overall numbers. Because now, the battery was depleted — and EV mode was inoperative (the system disengages once the electric-only range gets to about three-tenths of a mile remaining, at which point the car functions like the regular Prius, with the gas engine feeding power back into the batteries). So, I was burning gas now to keep the batteries topped off — and to propel the car. And now I had to go back up Bent Mountain. That 9 percent grade, so helpful coming down — is murderous on the car’s efficiency coming back up. If I had to start at the bottom of a hill like that, I doubt the car would make it the four miles to the top before the batteries had discharged to the point that EV mode was no longer available. Hills are the nemesis of the plug-in Prius (and all electric-hybrid cars).
Still, the fact remains: I averaged 62 MPG — considerably better than the regular Prius and much, much better than even the very best non-hybrid economy cars. My numbers would have been even better, too, if I’d had been able to plug-in the car once I got downtown. Then, instead of heading back home hauling a drained battery pack — and burning gas to keep things moving — I’d at least have made it to the foot of the mountain before the consumption of hydrocarbons commenced. I have no doubt 70 MPG on average is achievable — and that is truly excellent.
And that’s me driving — and my less-than-ideal commute.
If your commute is say 5-10 miles or so and you don’t have to deal with uphill climbs, this car could function as an electric car — not a hybrid — most of the time you drive it. In which case, the fuel savings could rapidly chew down the price premium. But, for the numbers to add up (in your favor) you must be able to drive the plug-in Prius as an electric car most of the time — not a hybrid.
Let’s run some numbers:
The difference in cost between a regular Prius and the plug-in version is $8,000.
For the sake of discussion, let’s say the regular Prius eats gas at the rate of 50 MPG, average. It has a 12 gallon tank. So, 12 gallons will take you — roughly — 600 miles. You fill up twice a month — so you spend about $100 a month (assuming $4 per gallon) to drive appx. 1,200 miles — which works out to about $1,200 to drive 12,000 miles annually.
The break-even point relative to the plug-in is 6.5 years out — at which point, the owner of the regular Prius will have spent $7,800 on gas while the plug-in buyer will have spent $8,000 more “up front” to buy his car. But after 6.5 years, the owner of the regular Prius keeps on paying $1,200 a year, indefinitely.
More, if gas prices go up.
The plug-in buyer stops “paying” after 6.5 years — even if gas goes to $8 a gallon.
Given it’s now routine — because sensible — for people to keep cars 8-10 years or even longer, you’ll eventually come out ahead if you bought the plug-in vs. the standard Prius. Potentially, by several thousand dollars. If gas prices soar, as many predict, you might save a great deal more than that.
But, remember the catch: You must be able to operate the car mostly as an EV — not a hybrid. If your daily trip is too long; if you can’t plug-in when you get where you’re going; if you have to drive the car uphill a lot — then think twice. Because it may take a long time to pay down the higher up-front cost in real-world fuel savings.
Same caveat applies relative to a non-hybrid economy car. Even if it (the non-hybrid economy car) only averages 30 MPG, if it costs $15,000 less to buy, it’s going to take a long time for the plug-in Prius to reach break-even — unless you can drive the Prius in EV mode almost all the time. And even then, you’re looking at a long-haul proposition.
Unless, of course, gas prices double. In which case, everything changes.
The nut of it is this sucker shows real promise. Even when not given optimal conditions for maximum MPGs, it still rarely gives you less than high 50s/low 60s. Contrast that with GM’s electric lemon, the Volt. It can go farther on electricity only (about 35 miles). But once its batteries are depleted — and the internal gas-engine generator kicks in — MPGs droop to 35 or so. That sucks, any way you stare at it. And when you add to the mix the Volt’s $40k starting MSRP, it sucks even worse.
The Prius may be homely — though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It might not be the quickest thing on four wheels — though it is certainly quick enough to deal comfortably with everyday A to B driving.
But unlike the Volt, the plug-in Prius is always economical to drive — and can be fantastically economical to drive, without needing the rigmarole the Volt does, such as a special (and $2k extra-cost) charging dock. Depending on how things go, it could also be extremely economical to own, too.
Just plug into your standard household outlet and three hours later, you’re ready to drive 10-14 miles for cents per mile (the cost of the electricity) vs. $4 per gallon. And when the battery’s power is sapped, your gas mileage won’t plummet. You’ll still be doing much better than just about anything else on four wheels — and a lot that’s on two wheels.
That, I can dig.
AT THE CURB
The plug-in Prius is physically the same as the standard version of the Prius — with the exception of the electric receptacle on the passenger-side rear flank and the “plug in” badging. Advanced models have the previously mentioned blue-tinted LED headlights.
Otherwise — on the outside — it’s familiar territory.
Inside, too — with a few subtle differences, such as the LCD graphic display for the hybrid powertrain’s operation. For instance, you’ll notice “two” battery icons — one overlaying the other. The first indicating how much charge is stored in the battery you topped off with the plug-in cord. It’s a single blue bar that gradually depletes — at which point, it is replaced by another blue bar, segmented (as in the standard Prius) which shows the state of charge of the battery as it is fed electricity by the action of the gas engine, or the regenerative braking system (which captures the energy of inertia and converts it to electricity). This second blue bar only shows up after you’ve used up all the stored charge to run in EV mode.
As in the regular Prius, you can use the real-time data provided by the graphic displays to maximize the efficiency of your driving — and to get the most range out of the batteries. The graphic showing the power flow — from batteries to motor, and engine to batteries — helps you fine-tune your throttle inputs and so on. Before you know it, you’ll be “hypermiling,” too.
The Prius is practical in another important way: It has a five passenger-capable cabin with a large area behind the second row for cargo — 22 cubic feet — and a wide-opening hatchback layout to make the most use of all that space.
Drop the second row and the Prius has almost 40 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
Compare the layout of the Prius with the four-passenger-only Volt. It has a pair of bucket seats in the back (with two inches less legroom — 34.1 inches vs. 36 for the Toyota — and about an inch less headroom) separated by a rising center console and just 10.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear seats — about half the space for stuff you have in the Prius.
The Chevy is certainly sexier to look at. But that’s arguably a weird priority for a car ostensibly intended to be economical. The bald truth is the Prius is a more functional — and useful — car than the Volt.
In addition to being more economical.
I have to admit the potential of this car — and even the actuality, depending on the situation. For people with fairly short commutes (10 miles or less) and the ability to plug in when they get to work — this car could very well be an end-run around rising gas prices. It might take three or four years to reach “break even” — but after that, you’ll be paying much less to get from Here to There than your friends in their gas-burners. And if gas prices shoot up to $5 or $6 or $10 per gallon over the next three or four years — whether because of “peak oil,” inflation, or the maniacs in charge who seem determined to ignite another war in the Middle East — well, you’ll be sitting pretty while almost everyone else is squealing like a pig.
I also think Toyota could do better. The Prius could be lighter (see what they’ve done with the Prius C) and that would make it even more efficient. It could also be less pricey. Even the base model is fairly loaded — which is nice, but it’d also be nice to skip some features (for example, power windows, locks — even AC) to lower the cost of acquisition and thereby improve the “math.” I mentioned in my review a couple months back of the regular Prius that I wished Toyota would make the fixed front quarter windows openable — which would make it feasible to put AC on the options list — and probably drop 150 pounds of deadweight from the car’s curb weight.
But, these are incidental gripes.
The message to take from this review is that a new Model T has appeared. It has its toothing pains to overcome, certainty. But for the first time, I can clearly see the future.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I wouldn’t mind owning this car. God help me.