Editor's note: This review was written in November 2012 about the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Toyota spent roughly 10 years marketing its Prius hybrid as a car that never needs to be plugged in, combatting an organic misperception to the contrary. Now the Prius — specifically a version called the Prius Plug-In — can indeed be plugged in. Currently available in 14 coastal states plus Hawaii, the Plug-In will be available across the U.S. by the end of 2013, Toyota says.
On the strength of the regular Prius and its zealous fans, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In will probably be a lasting hit — but for questionable reasons.
The Prius Plug-In comes in two trim levels: base and Advanced. See them compared side by side.
The Latest Plug-In Philosophy
The PPI, as I'll call it, represents the third major technological philosophy among plug-in cars. The purest is the battery-electric car, like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi i-MiEv and Tesla Model S — all electric, no gas, relatively limited range.
Then there are extended-range electrics like the Chevrolet Volt and Fisker Karma, which go a respectable distance fully electric and then rely on a gasoline-powered generator.
The Prius Plug-In splits the difference, with a battery pack larger than the one in the non-plug-in Prius (4.4 kilowatt-hours versus 1.3), but considerably smaller than what powers pure EV and extended-range competitors (16 kWh or more). It relies on the gas engine for full acceleration but has truly usable electric-only acceleration that the regular Prius lacks.
Because its battery is small, the PPI finishes charging quickly. On 120 volts of household power, it recharges in about three hours. A provided cord accomplishes this. Using 240 volts, which requires separate Level 2 charging hardware at added cost, I charged it in around 90 minutes. Toyota says Level 2 charging equipment and installation starts at $999. I don't see a need.
Take Prius, Add Plug
The PPI is based on the Prius' conventional series/parallel hybrid system, down to the same drivetrain hardware. As it does in philosophy and equipment, the PPI splits the difference between regular hybrids and extended-range electrics in its driving experience and potential for fuel savings.
The PPI has the same interior volume as the regular Prius, though the battery pack is large enough to displace the spare tire (sealant and a pump take its place). The Prius Plug-In also drives almost exactly the same as the regular hybrid. As I detailed in my review, the regular Prius isn't the most compelling car to drive, but it has satisfied more than a million U.S. buyers. It's hard to argue with that.
The battery pack is a space- and weight-efficient lithium-ion type rather than the regular hybrid's nickel-metal-hydride formula. Regardless, it adds enough weight that some suspension tweaks were needed. (The whole car is 123 pounds heavier.) It feels firmer than the regular Prius, but it's not the disaster we found a prototype PPI to be in 2011 (see the report).
True Electric-Only Acceleration
The noticeable difference between the PPI and the regular Prius is its true electric-only acceleration and range. In the regular Prius, electric-only operation is little more than a creep (which also describes owners who use it in traffic). Once the PPI's battery is charged, the car accelerates at a reasonable clip. In the Midwestern flatlands, this got me up to 65 mph without activating the gas engine. Throw in a hill or demand full acceleration, however, and the engine does turn on. This is where the PPI differs from the Volt, which uses an electric motor alone to accelerate — even when the initial charge is depleted and its gas generator has activated.
Kept in EV mode (if you can), the PPI has a claimed range of up to 15 miles, or an EPA-estimated 11 miles. Understandably, most people balk at this range as way too short. I'm of two minds on the topic.
In real use, sometimes the 2012 PPI ran electric-only as expected, and other times the engine turned on for no clear reason, even before I put the car in Drive. Once the engine starts for the first time, it tends to stay on for a couple minutes so the pollution controls can reach optimal temperature. Sometimes the ludicrously low-resolution display shows the engine running, and sometimes it doesn't, even when it's clearly audible.
As I've said about the regular Prius, focusing on the electric-only operation misses the point. No matter how satisfying electric-only driving might be, what matters are the long-term and long-range results. In this regard, the regular Prius is unmatched — EPA rated 51/48/50 mpg city/highway/combined.
How about the Plug-In? First off, ignore the EPA's preposterous "miles per gallon equivalent" rating, which credits the PPI, Volt and Leaf with 95, 98 and 99 mpge, respectively. Based on an arbitrary distance, it inevitably under- or overestimates efficiency for any real trip — and assigns cost assumptions to the electricity and gasoline, where applicable. Forget about it.
Instead, to grasp the realities, consider the electric range of each, then separately the mileage rating when the engine is running, where applicable. Here the Volt's gas-powered rating is 37 mpg in combined city/highway driving. Toyota originally cited a combined rating of 49 mpg for the Plug-In when in regular hybrid mode, but the EPA has settled on 50 mpg. If this proves accurate, it means there's no mileage penalty for the Plug-In versus the regular Prius.
The Volt has an advantage for short to medium distances because of its longer electric range, but as the trip gets longer, the PPI's superior gas-only mileage helps it surpass the Volt in consumption and cost savings. (The Volt also requires premium gas, which introduces another cost penalty.) Though it included a prototype Prius Plug-In, our test of three plug-ins still illustrates the cost differences well.
So What's the Point Then?
All the electricity in a normal hybrid battery comes from the gas engine, either directly or through regeneration while braking. It's the combination of regeneration and the teamwork between the electric motor and a specially designed gas engine that make a hybrid efficient. What the PPI type of plug-in hybrid adds is a full charge of cheap, potentially clean electricity before you even leave the house, and because of its greater capacity, the larger battery can capture more energy when coasting or braking downhill. (On a long stretch, a regular hybrid's battery gets topped off sooner and can't accommodate any more.)
Burning less gas, which typically costs about twice as much per mile as electricity, is always good. But shouldn't it burn a lot less?
On one morning commute of 17 miles, the engine turned on occasionally, either under heavy acceleration or at high speeds. The rest of the time it ate away at the initial electric charge, and I arrived at the Cars.com office with 0.1 mile of electric range left. This is the perfect outcome. Yes, gas was burned, but depleting the full charge right before arrival means the battery pack was the perfect size for this drive. About 5 miles on gas — mainly at the car's highway mileage of around 49 mpg — is still better than the whole 17 miles.
Even so, the cost difference isn't dramatic compared with the non-plug-in. For that 5 miles, I burned one-tenth of a gallon and spent around $0.40 on gas alone (based on $4/gallon) plus another $0.38 in electricity for the electric-only distance (based on a measured 3.5 kWh the night before at $0.11/kWh). Total trip cost: $0.78.
In a regular Prius, it would have been just over a third of a gallon and $1.40 for all 17 miles.
Is it worth it? That's a tough sell. At $32,795 with destination, the Plug-In costs $8,000 more than the base Prius Two. It's not a perfect comparison, as the PPI has some added features, including a navigation system and heated front seats, but if the goal is cheap operation, the base Prius is the one to compare. (See the Plug-In and regular Prius compared.) While it isn't eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit of other plug-ins to date, a qualified PPI buyer can get up to $2,500 back from the feds. Our test car was the higher, Advanced trim level, which starts at $40,320.
The Prius received top scores of Good in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's front-, side- and rear-impact crash tests. While the regular Prius also scored Good in roof-strength tests, a measure of rollover protection, the Plug-In's additional weight requires follow-up calculations that haven't been completed as of publication. The Prius also received the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's top score of five stars overall.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control, as is required of all new vehicles as of the 2012 model year. The Advanced trim level includes Safety Connect with Mayday, Toyota's version of OnStar, which can contact authorities in the event of a collision or other emergency. It also includes a collision-warning system. Neither feature is offered on the base trim level.
To see all the standard safety features, click here.
Prius Plug-In in the Market
It's great that the Prius Plug-In's gas-only mileage equals the non-plug-in's, but over short trips, the fuel and cash saved in the PPI is just this side of negligible. Just as one can justify driving a guzzler if the trips are short and infrequent, one can pass on an efficient car — if cost is the sole consideration. If you just feel good not burning gas, by all means, bust out that checkbook. I suspect many Prius fans will do so. As of September 2012, based on just 14 states, the PPI was the second-best-selling plug-in behind the Volt.
Arguably, this plug-in philosophy's main advantage is one found behind the scenes — which helps explain why more are coming. Most will be from Ford, whose broader hybrid strategy has long mirrored Toyota's: Using the same drivetrain hardware and small batteries makes them affordable to manufacture. In cars like the Leaf and Volt, the battery packs alone cost five digits. Even under substantial government subsidy (and enormous automaker investment), those cars aren't flying out of dealerships. To succeed in the market, any vehicle with a plug needs to be profitable to manufacture as well as affordable to buy.
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