While the Prius is an iconic hybrid, Toyota has been slow to get into the plug-in market until now. Courtesy photo

While the Prius is an iconic hybrid, Toyota has been slow to get into the plug-in market until now. Courtesy photo


Toyota’s Prius gets plugged in

By April 7, 2011

Electric cars are the future … at least for the time being. Until other fuels become available, electricity is the one power source that is widely available.

We have been getting electric hybrid cars for many years but are starting to see some more innovative electrics arrive in dealerships. Toyota, which has been the leader in hybrid technology, has been fairly quiet when it comes to electric cars.  But that does not mean that they have been standing still.  In fact, Toyota has been doing research to find out which way they need to go.

The problem is that nobody knows the secret formula for a great electric car.  Buyers want all the features, but you have to compromise somewhere.  For example, longer range means more expensive batteries, so the price will go up and the batteries will take up room.

Toyota’s Plug-In Hybrid (PIH) Prius features a regular Prius body with just some graphics to differentiate it from other Prius models.  There are 160 of these cars being tested in several U.S. cities to demonstrate the plug-in hybrid technology, evaluate the performance and better understand the benefits to the customer.  The Prius PIH works pretty much like any other Prius except that it can run on pure electric power for short distances, which is what many drivers use cars for. The Prius PIH can run about 13 miles on a full electric charge.  The engine will kick in while on electric power if the car requires more muscle, such as getting on the freeway or climbing hills.

If you are easy on the gas pedal, the PIH will operate in electric mode up to about 60 mph.  Of course, the standard Prius’ regenerative braking is still there to charge the battery.  When you finally deplete the battery, you won’t be stranded.  The gasoline engine fires up and you won’t even notice it.

When you get to your destination, you can recharge the PIH by plugging it into a regular domestic 110 volt outlet. Using 110 volts, it will take only about three hours to recharge the batteries. With access to a 220 volt outlet, you can get a full charge in only an hour-and-a-half.

One of the secrets of the Prius PIH is the use of lithium-ion batteries.  The batteries are more expensive but are much more sophisticated and work great at powering everything from electric cars to cordless drills.  To supplement the batteries, the Prius PIH uses a 1.8 liter gasoline engine that puts out 98 horsepower to boost the 80-horsepower electric motor.

Once behind the wheel, the PIH drives just like any other Prius.  It is not a driver’s car and it never pretends to be one.  When you get behind the wheel of the Prius PIH, you want to go slow and smooth to see what kind of fuel economy you can achieve.  While it can handle day-to-day driving, it will not get you around twisty roads in a hurry.

On the positive side, the ride is very nice and it is pretty quiet in the cabin, despite a little bit of wind noise.  Your passengers also will be comfortable, since there’s plenty of legroom in the back seat.

The batteries on most plug-in cars usually take up so much room that trunk is small.  But the Prius, has a huge trunk, making it a good family car.  Let’s face it, if the trunk is tiny you can’t take the family to Costco, and will have to pull out that V8-powered truck instead.

The electric drivetrain works very well in the Prius.  Once you are in electric mode, it basically feels like a fancy golf cart. The drive is strangely quiet and smooth, accelerating with a gentle hum.

It feels great knowing that you are not burning any gasoline, even if you still have to factor in how much it will cost to recharge the battery and you how that power was produced.

If you have a solar or wind powered station at your house, a car like this would be a home run.  With the drop in price of such systems, it may be just a matter of time when you can basically drive the Prius PIH for free with power generated at your house.

Government tax credits will also help with this greatly.  And even when the gasoline engine kicks in, the Prius PIH still gets great mileage.  In our tests, we got about 49 mpg in mixed city and highway drivin.  When you get mileage like that, you wonder why all cars can’t do this.

The Prius PIH is not for everyone.  If you are looking for a driving machine, this is not the car for you.  But as a commuter car to drive to work or to drive the kids to school, this car makes great sense.

Toyota hopes to make the plug-in version available to the public in 2012 in three different versions.   Plans call for the Prius, a RAV4 small SUV and a small commuter car with even better mileage.  All we can say is “hurry up” because we can’t wait.

Ali Arsham

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