By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Actually, there will be no 2014 Prius.
The current model — the third Gen. Prius, last updated for the 2010 model year — will soldier on until next summer, when Toyota will replace it with an all-new fourth generation Prius.
The 2015 Prius.
But, you can get a preview of the ’15 by checking out the 2013 Prius plug-in hybrid. It has a lithium-ion battery pack as opposed to a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. Lithium-ion batteries can store almost twice the energy that NiMH batteries can store, which significantly increases the efficiency and the performance of the hybrid powertrain. In particular, the hybrid’s ability to move — and stay moving — on electric power alone, without any assist from the gas engine.
Which of course means you burn less fuel. Potentially, no fuel — if you can get where you’re going without the gas engine kicking in before you get there.
The 2015 will reportedly come standard with lithium-ion batteries — and so should be able to run on electricity only for longer — and faster.
It’s even possible that Toyota will offer plug-in capability as a standard feature — pushing the electric-only envelope even farther.
That would be a real bell-ringer.
It’s also rumored that Toyota may offer AWD as an available option with the ’15 Prius. That I’m not much excited about — because it strikes me as silly. AWD is already over-sold (thanks to very effective over-marketing). Why add weight and rolling resistance — which reduces fuel efficiency — as well as complexity and cost — to a vehicle built — ostensibly — to maximize economy?
Obviously, to make more money.
But, that’s a year in the future. Six months, at least, before we’ll get specifics.
For now, we’ve got the current Prius — and the plug-in version, with its high-performance lithium-ion batteries.
Let’s take a tour.
WHAT IT IS
The plug-in Prius is a longer-legged and even more fuel-sippy version of the popular Prius hybrid hatchback sedan.
Instead of being “closed loop” — with the gas engine recharging the internal battery pack — you can top off the batteries — which are higher-performing lithium-ion batteries — by plugging the car into an external 120V household outlet. Which means, you can recharge the batteries without running the engine.
Which means, without burning any gas at all.
And not only that.
Once fully charged up, you can drive for about 14 miles in electric vehicle (EV) mode — gas engine shut down — and at much higher speeds (up to 62 MPH) than you could in the regular Prius — which can only go for about a mile on its lower-performance NiMH batteries — and no faster than about 25 MPH.
Naturally, there’s a price to be paid. Only you’ll pay it up front rather than at your local Exxon station.
The plug-in Prius starts at $32,000 — vs. $24,200 for the standard (non-plug-in) version. The Advanced version — which comes with numerous luxury amenities, including leather seats, a premium JBL audio rig, HID lights and heads-up display — lists for $39,525.
This is about what GM wants for the Chevy Volt — the plug-in Prius’ main competition. It zaps you with a $39,145 MSRP to start.
Another plug-in Prius rival is the Ford C-Max Energi. It features a lithium-ion battery and plug-in capability — and its base price is a more accessible $32,950.
Calendar year 2013 is the first year the plug-in Prius became available nationwide. It will hold the line until the arrival next summer of the 2015 (model year) Prius.
Much better mileage than Volt (and C-Max) when gas engine’s running.
Can run for 14 or so miles without the gas engine running at all.
More passenger space — and cargo room — than Volt.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Volt can go farther — and much faster — on battery power.
Ditto the C-Max Energi.
Some ergonomic miscues (such as hard-to-see/hard-to-reach iPod hook-up in center console).
Electricity isn’t free — and there is talk of imposing special road taxes on hybrids, to make up for lost gas taxes.
UNDER THE HOOD
The plug-in Prius has the same 1.8 liter gas engine as in the standard Prius — and as in the standard-issue Prius, it’s used to provide motive power as well as a kind of carry-it-with-you generator to keep the batteries charged up. But the plug-in Prius has 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 only other hybrids that can do this trick are the Chevy Volt and the Ford C-Max Energi. The Volt can go farther on battery power alone — 25-30 miles or more under ideal conditions — and is capable of breaking every speed limit in the land (including Texas’ 80 MPH limit) on just its batteries. It, too, can be recharged externally — so that you can avoid using the car’s gas-burning engine as much as possible.
Ditto the C-Max, which can go about 21 miles on the batteries — and up to 85 MPH.
However, the Volt and C-Max Energi differ radically from the Prius in one very important way: They’re gas guzzlers — as hybrids go — when their gas engines are running.
Low-mid 30s for the Volt; low 40s for the C-Max — vs. 50-plus for the Prius.
The Volt was designed to operate principally as an electric car, even though it is technically a hybrid. GM gave it fairly long legs on battery power alone — but at the cost of not-so-great gas mileage if you exceed the battery-only range and force the car to revert to gas-burning to keep moving. The Volt’s smaller (1.4 liter) gas engine has to work overtime to provide the electricity to keep the wheels turning — and there’s no (or little) surplus energy available to put reserve charge back into the batteries. That means once the battery pack is depleted, the little engine is working pretty much constantly — in addition to working hard.
Which is why 35 or so MPGs.
The C-Max, meanwhile, is more of a hot rod. It has a larger (2.0 liter) engine and a combined output of almost 190 hp.
Which is why low 40s.
The Prius is more balanced. You can travel a respectable distance on battery power alone — but if you run low on charge, your gas mileage won’t plummet. The 1.8 liter has power enough to keep the car moving — and to juice up the batteries. You won’t have the same EV-only range again until you plug-in for awhile. But there will be enough stored energy to avoid running the gas engine constantly. It will cycle on — and off. And it won’t have to work as hard when it’s on to keep the car moving.
Which is why 50-plus MPG.
The standard — and only — transmission in the Prius is a CVT automatic, controlled by a video game-style toggle that’s either love it — or hate it.
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 a few hours to overnight using standard 120V household current.
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.
ON THE ROAD
Toyota has tried hard to make the Prius seem different — and futuristic — via gimmicks like the video game-style toggle shifter located on a “flying buttress” console that sweeps forward from the dashboard. But the truth — and arguably, a big part of the reason for its success — is that it behaves very much like an ordinary A to B family-type of car. Take away the hybrid-specific gauges and displays, the funky asymmetric dashpad — and that silly toggle shifter — and it’s pretty much get in and go.
It is quieter than other cars when running on the batteries — and there are a few distinctly hybrid sounds, including the whirr of regenerative braking (using the vehicle’s momentum to put some charge back into the batteries) when descending a grade and the slight fan noise emanating from the battery cooling grille in the rear passenger compartment.
But other than that, it’s not functionally obvious you’re driving anything out of the ordinary — and (with the exception of the obnoxious back-up buzzer that assaults you with high decibel Ding! Ding! Dings! whenever you put the car in reverse) it is as easy to drive as a Corolla or Camry.
Toyota’s hybrid technology is so seamless that visual cues — such as the iconically homely shape of the Prius — are needed to call attention to it.
The Volt, on the other hand, looks — and drives — sexier. It is much quicker: Zero to 60 in under 9 seconds vs. over 10 for the Prius. And as mentioned earlier, you can hot-shoe the Volt at triple digit speeds — on electric power alone.
The C-Max can almost get there, too.
Which is neat, of course — but also kind of beside the point. A 100 MPH electric car that gets 30-ish (or even 40-ish) MPG once the batteries are sucking wind is kind of like trying to lose weight on an ice cream diet.
Which is probably why the Volt’s been a sales Turducken — an epic flop — while the Prius has been just the opposite. Toyota can’t bolt them together fast enough — and dealers are able to sell them at full mark-up. Sexy — and speedy — will sell.
But when it comes to hybrids, only when the cost is reasonable — and efficiency isn’t compromised.
Memo to GM.
AT THE CURB
The plug-in Prius is physically the same in terms of appearance and dimensions as the standard version of the Prius — with the exception of the electric receptacle on the passenger-side rear flank and the almost-invisible “plug in” badging. Advanced models have blue-tinted LED headlights. Otherwise, it’s familiar territory.
Inside, too — with a few subtle differences, such as the slightly different displays for the plug-in hybrid powertrain’s operation. For instance, you’ll notice two battery icons — one overlaying the other. The first indicates how much charge is stored in the battery you topped off with using 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.
You can equip the Prius with seat heaters, Adaptive Cruise Control (maintains speed even on downhill grades) and so on.
The Volt has similar features, but one critical thing it lacks is the ability to carry more than four people because of the full-length center console that divides the car’s interior.
The Prius can carry five.
It also has twice the cargo capacity: 21.6 cubic feet vs. a meager 10.6 cubes for the Volt.
Again, I’m not sure what GM was thinking — or smoking. The Volt’s smaller interior — and minuscule trunk — would probably be acceptable compromises if it were more economical to operate than the Volt.
But, it’s not.
Only two things I didn’t dig. First, the seats are pretty stiff — at least, they felt that way to me. More padding would be welcome. Second — and this is a small thing — the plug-in receptacle for your iPod is buried deep down in the center console — making it almost impossible to plug-in your iPod without stopping the car and rooting around down there.
One more thing: That obnoxious back-up buzzer has got to go. This is a medium-small car, not a 30-foot RV. It’s more than just annoying, too. It is arguably distracting — and thus, dangerous — to be hammered by warning buzzers while trying to back the car up.
I don’t know whether there’s some easy way to turn it off. I hope so. I would insist on it being disabled as a condition of sale.
On the economics:
It will take a few years to reach “break even” relative to an otherwise equivalent — and less expensive up front — non-hybrid car.
And, frankly, relative to the regular Prius.
That $8,200 price difference is equivalent to appx. 745 fill-ups (11 gallons per fill-up at appx. $3.60 per gallon). The regular Prius can go 606 miles in city-type driving on a full tank — and 571 miles on the highway (EPA figures). Let’s split the difference and call it about 580 miles per tank. If you bought the standard Prius — and put that $8,200 toward gas — you’d be able to drive for a long time before burning through it all.
This is probably why the plug-in Prius hasn’t sold nearly as well — so far — as the standard-issue model. It hasn’t helped the car much that gas prices have remained relatively stable at around $3.60 per gallon.
However, if gas prices go up to say $5 a gallon — or (god help us) more than that — then everything changes.
One other thing to be aware of: There is talk of taxing hybrids to make up for the motor fuels taxes hybrid owners aren’t paying.
When hybrids were curiosities, government provided incentives to get people to buy them — everything from special rights to use HOV lanes during rush hour to outright bribes (i.e., tax rebates). But now that hybrids are becoming as common as Camrys (there’s a hybrid version of that car, too) politicians are moaning about all the lost “revenue” — and looking for ways to get it back.
One way would be to hit hybrid owners with a “hybrid vehicle tax” equivalent to whatever they claim the average non-hybrid owner dishes out each year in motor fuels taxes.
Another would be to jack-up the cost of electricity. That’s likely to happen regardless, as utilities increase their rates to make up for the cost of complying with ever-increasing regulatory burdens as well as increasing demand.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Prius could be — and should be — lighter. The current model weighs in at just under 3,200 lbs. If that were cut down to 2,800 lbs. or so, 70 MPG would probably be possible — and probably 20-plus miles on electric power alone.
The Prius could also be less pricey.
Why not, for instance, make AC optional?
I mentioned in my review a couple months back of the regular Prius that I wished Toyota would make it so you could open the fixed front quarter windows — which would make it feasible to put AC on the options list — and probably drop 150 pounds of deadweight, too.
Ditto power windows and other cost-padding, weight-adding features. Maybe even a radio pre-wiring package — but no factory stereo installed. Anything to cut the cost — and so, strengthen the economic case for this car.
Maybe the 2015 will make it so.