Toyota Prius Plug-in review

31 July 2012

Toyota Prius Plug-in from the front

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: Amazing economy and effortless to drive
Bad: Lifeless controls, poor seats and a sluggish feel
Price: From £27,895 after government grants
The Toyota Prius hybrid famously unites an electric motor and petrol engine to create one of the most fuel-efficient cars currently on sale. But does it make sense to add a bigger battery and a mains plug, turning the Prius into an extended-range electric vehicle to compete with the likes of the Chevrolet Volt?

On one level, the answer is an emphatic yes. One of the weaknesses of the Volt and its Vauxhall Ampera twin is indifferent fuel economy when running in range-extending mode, a poor performance that the Prius should easily trump on longer journeys. Offering up to 15.5 miles on batteries alone, plus full hybrid performance thereafter, the Prius Plug-in might just offer the best of both worlds.

But on the other hand, the wisdom of electrifying the Prius is not so clear cut. At £27,895 after government grants, the Prius Plug-in may be cheaper than the £29,995 Volt, but the more expensive car can travel up to 50 miles – more than three times as far – on batteries alone. That means a greater proportion of journeys can be completed in EV mode, giving much less reliance on the petrol engine.

Toyota Prius Plug-in boot badge

As a result, the more telling comparison for the Prius Plug-in may well be with its own kind, where the markup over a standard Prius is around £3,000.

Trying to recoup that extra outlay through reduced fuel bills could take a while. The best case – comparing the two official combined-cycle consumption figures of 134.5mpg for the Plug-in versus 72.4mpg for the standard Prius – suggests a break-even point at around 70,000 miles. But that’s ignoring any differences in depreciation.

In reality the true gap between the two Priuses is almost impossible to calculate, because it will depend so heavily on where you end up driving. A mile driven on mains power will prove markedly cheaper than a mile spent running the engine. So if you intend making lots of very short trips, the Plug-in could repay its debt relatively quickly. But rack up lots of motorway miles, relying on the engine more regularly and for longer, and the Plug-in may never recoup its extra cost.

Of course not every motoring decision boils down to pounds and pence. No doubt many people will be interested in the Prius Plug-in for reasons that can’t easily be reckoned on a spreadsheet. Just as sports cars sell for emotional reasons, so many Prius Plug-in customers will choose the car as part of a bigger and more personal picture.

Toyota Prius Plug-in front seats and interior

Those who do plump for the new Toyota will find relatively few changes compared to the standard car. Things will feel familiar to anyone who has driven a recent Prius or its relatives like the Auris Hybrid and Lexus CT200h – which means it will feel oddly alien to everyone else. The gearlever, for example, is a sort of spring-loaded plastic toggle. You pull or push it to select among forward, reverse, neutral or braking mode, and then release it back to its starting point in the middle. The park position, meanwhile, is selected by a separate button.

And don’t bother looking for a handbrake – there’s a foot-operated parking brake down by your ankles.

Start the car by push-button and you won’t hear an engine, of course. By default the Plug-in Prius boots up into EV mode, while a row of buttons on the centre console provides further options. You can toggle between EV (electric vehicle) and HV (hybrid vehicle) mode, overlay a more miserly Eco mode, or call up EV City mode.

Power mode, offered by the standard Prius, is absent, however.

Toyota Prius Plug-in mode buttons

While all the driving options sound confusingly similar, there is a logic at work. Eco mode is the simplest, and it operates in conjunction with the other modes, softening the throttle response and dialling back the aircon so that the car uses less energy whichever of the other modes is active.

Hybrid mode can be selected manually, but it will also come into play automatically as soon as the initial mains charge is depleted. Much like any other Prius, energy is captured during braking, stored temporarily in the battery, and then used to propel the car at suitable moments. In this mode you tend to set off using only the 81bhp electric motor, with the 98bhp petrol engine joining in unobtrusively as speed or acceleration rises, before falling silent again whenever you lift off the throttle.

The default EV mode uses battery power alone, for as long as the battery lasts, unless you ask for brisk acceleration or speeds above 51mph. Push beyond those limits and the car will flip temporarily into Hybrid mode until speed drops again.

Finally, EV City mode will force the engine to stay dormant despite urgent acceleration and speeds of up to 59mph, according to my tests. This setting is designed to cater for the zero-emissions zones that may well spring up in cities in the near future.

Toyota Prius Plug-in plus charging post

Given that EV mode is the default setting, Toyota has set up the Prius Plug-in to rely on mains-charged batteries for as long as possible at the beginning of a journey. This may not be the best bet for efficiency, so it is good to have the various manual overrides. If your journey features high speeds at the start and low speeds at the end, it will be better to switch into Hybrid mode at the outset, for example.

Whichever mode is chosen, the driver can scroll through various information screens in the central digital instrument panel to learn what’s going on, where the energy is flowing and roughly how many miles are left in the battery. A full recharge takes only 90 minutes from a standard three-pin socket.

With so many modes and behaviours to consider, the Prius Plug-in can sound horribly complicated. But most drivers will find it only takes a few miles of playing around to understand how the car reacts to the various settings. Which setting is best to use under which circumstances may take slightly longer to master, but equally there’s always the option of simply ignoring the buttons and just driving.

In the absence of a Power mode, there’s not much fun to be had behind the wheel, unfortunately. Throttle response is languid, even more so in Eco mode, and the steering and brakes are as full of lively chatter as a morgue at midnight. But if you seek a quiet and effortless mobile cocoon then you’ve come to the right place. The Prius could perhaps feel more stress free, but only if the pedals were mounted inside a foot spa.

I would like to add that the car is comfortable, but unfortunately that wasn’t my experience. It rides deftly enough but I found the leather-and-cloth front seats lacked support for my lower back, while offering too much firmness at shoulder level, no matter how I adjusted the seat and wheel.

In common with most other hybrids, the Prius can sound a little raucous when brisk acceleration is summoned, but at other times it should prove extremely quiet. I say “should” because my particular car was marred by a persistent rattle that I eventually traced – after much exploratory prodding and poking – to a loose pane of glass in the interior mirror, of all things. Fortunately everything else seemed to be more solid and well screwed together.

Toyota Prius Plug-in driver's view

I’m not a fan of centrally mounted instrument panels, but the Prius Plug-in makes up for this awkward layout with an excellent head-up display that shines glowing green digits directly onto the windscreen ahead of the driver. The HUD can be switched off or adjusted as desired, including an option to show speed alone or speed plus an economy meter.

From a design point of view the Plug-in car looks very similar to standard. There are touches of matt silver trim on the door handles, boot-lid and front grille, a charging socket on the right rear haunch, and subtly different lenses in the rear lamps to distinguish the Plug-in edition.

There is only one trim level on offer, close but not identical to the top-level TSpirit edition of the ordinary Prius. Most noticeably, the Plug-in rolls on spindly 15-inch alloys with ugly plastic covers, specified in the interests of economy – the TSpirit’s prettier but less efficient 17-inch rims aren’t an option.

Toyota Prius Plug-in rear view

All things considered, the Prius Plug-in is probably a more sensible design than the much more complicated Volt/Ampera discussed earlier, not least because at 1,450kg the Toyota weighs about 300kg less.

That abstract difference may be hard to picture unless you imagine an average family of four plus a few suitcases, which will typically weigh in at around 300kg all told. Dragging that extra mass around on every trip means a much less efficient car no matter how clever and complicated its drivetrain.

The Prius Plug-in makes a decent case for itself as a refined and relaxing mode of transport that will minimise reliance on the petrol pump. It is compromised, but it should appeal to anyone who wants an electric car without the drawback of range limitations.

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