The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in (Base MSRP: $32,000 to $39,525) is exactly what it sounds like -- a regular 2012 Toyota Prius (Base MSRP: $24,000 to $29,805) that you can plug in for a relatively cheap recharge. Experts say it's the same roomy, practical hatchback that hybrid owners know so well, only with better gas mileage.
How much better? That varies wildly, depending on whether you take short trips, drive over mountains and a lot of other factors.
But is it better than its plug-in hybrid rival, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt (Base MSRP: $39,145)? The jury's still out -- experts haven't tested the Prius Plug-in as extensively as the Volt -- but the Volt does hold some trump cards. It can run faster and farther on electricity (35 miles versus 11 miles for the Prius Plug-in, according to the EPA), with snappier acceleration and a more natural drive feel.
The Volt also qualifies for a bigger federal tax credit (up to $7,500, versus $2,500 for the Prius Plug-in), so the two cars wind up priced in the same ballpark. (Some states also offer thousands of dollars' worth of tax credits for both cars). The five-seat Prius Plug-in does hold more people and cargo than the four-seat Volt, and the Prius Plug-in gets better gas mileage once the engine kicks on, but experts still recommend the Volt more highly.
For 2012, Toyota is selling the Prius Plug-in in 15 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. Other states will get it in 2013.
The Prius Plug-in looks exactly like a regular Prius, reviews say -- in fact, Autoblog.com's Sebastian Blanco bets that a Prius owner wouldn't be able to tell the difference without scrutinizing the Plug-in really, really closely inside and out.
"Sure, there are hints that this isn't a regular Prius before you start driving," Blanco writes. "Small front wheel well and rear badges now say Plug-in Hybrid instead of just Hybrid, and the model also sports unique wheels." Otherwise, the two cars share precisely the same hatchback body, with its now-familiar wedge shape.
That means they share the same styling flourishes and flaws -- including the cabin plastics that Edmunds.com finds "disappointing ... harder and cheaper plastics than other cars in its price range. We'll cut the Prius a small measure of slack, as the plastic material is plant-derived and uses less petroleum in the production process. For many buyers, however, that concession to eco-consciousness won't cut it against others with nicer interiors."
The Prius Plug-in uses smaller batteries than the Chevy Volt. This unfortunately means it can't run as long on electricity (see below), but it does have one big advantage: The batteries don't eat up any passenger or cargo space. Instead, Toyota does away with the spare tire (the Volt doesn't have one, either), preserving all of the regular Prius's space for people and their stuff.
So while the Volt seats only four -- and adults in the backseat will feel crowded -- the Prius Plug-in seats five, with backseat legroom that feels more like a midsize car than the compact it really is. And while the Volt holds only a paltry 10.6 cubic feet of cargo behind its rear seats, the Prius Plug-in holds a plentiful 21.6 cubes (both cars' rear seats also fold).
The base Prius Plug-in (Base MSRP: $32,000) lacks a couple of the Volt's standard features -- there's no remote ignition or auto-dimming rearview mirror -- but it picks up a few that the Volt charges extra for, including an on-board navigation system, back-up camera and heated front seats. Like the Volt, the base Prius Plug-in also gets touch-screen cabin controls, keyless entry/ignition, cruise control, automatic headlights and climate control, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth, a CD stereo with auxiliary jack and iPod/USB interface and a smartphone integration system (Toyota calls it Entune).
The Prius Plug-in Advanced (Base MSRP: $39,525) substitutes imitation leather seats, a bigger touch screen and a better stereo and adds some Entune features, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, LED headlights and fog lights and adaptive cruise control.
The Plug-in Prius drives exactly like a regular Prius, testers say: Same comfy ride, same numb steering, same leisurely acceleration. Its identical 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, pair of electric motors and continuously variable transmission (CVT) crank out an identical 134 horsepower. The Plug-in makes it to 60 mph in 10.1 seconds at Edmunds.com, just like the regular Prius -- "far from quick, but plenty for most drivers." Critics like driving the Volt better -- it's about 1 second faster to 60 mph, with more natural-feeling steering, and testers say the Volt just drives more like a normal car.
The Plug-in uses a different battery than the regular Prius, though: It's lithium-ion, not nickel-metal hydride, and it can store about four times as much juice. It can't store as much as the Volt's, though, so the Prius Plug-in can't travel nearly as far on electricity alone. The EPA estimates that the Volt can go 35 miles without burning a drop of gas (reliable testers say you'll get 20 to 50 miles, depending on driving style and weather -- running the heaters, wipers, etc. gobbles electricity), but only 11 miles for the Prius.
And that's pushing it, ConsumerReports.org's Gabe Shenhar says. "If you thought you'd be using electricity exclusively for 11 miles, you'd soon discover that's not the case. As soon as you press the throttle farther than about a third of its travel, the internal combustion engine kicks in and you're using fuel. So, unlike the Volt, the Prius Plug-in is never an unequivocal EV, even for the portion that's supposed to be gas-free."
ConsumerReports.org concludes that, "With such a short electric-only range, the Prius Plug-in really only makes sense for those who have short commutes or who can plug in frequently."
However, TheTruthAboutCars.com's Alex Dykes disagrees. During his 870-mile test, Dykes says that with the Prius Plug-in's battery fully charged, he had to push the gas pedal about three-quarters of the way to the floor before the gas engine would kick on. In fact, the Prius Plug-in's fuel economy crushes both the regular Prius and the Chevy Volt on Dykes' hilly 109-mile daily commute (see below).
But you do have to treat the throttle gingerly to keep the Prius Plug-in in EV mode, testers all agree. The Volt will rev up to 100 mph on electricity, but Toyota says the Plug-in's gas engine will kick on at 62 mph. Dykes nudges the Plug-in past 70 mph in EV mode, "but that does mean you have to piss off everyone behind you on the freeway on-ramp." Driven normally, he says, "somewhere around 45 to 50 mph the gasoline engine will turn on."
"Almost any sudden throttle inputs will force the combustion of some of your precious petroleum," says Blanco at Autoblog.com. Unlike the Volt, for example, the Prius Plug-in has to rely on its gas engine to pass another car on the freeway.
"It's a shame that one of the most fun things about driving an electric vehicle – instant torque – is missing here, but we doubt this will be a deal breaker for most of the people who consider buying a Prius Plug-in Hybrid," Blanco says.
The Prius Plug-in is so new that experts haven't had time to conduct extensive fuel-economy tests. Plus, "your mileage may vary" has never been so true as with plug-in hybrids.
But looking at EPA estimates, the Prius Plug-in offers the same gas mileage as the regular Prius -- 50 mpg -- plus 11 miles of gas-free electric driving (although ConsumerReports.org hasn't been able to achieve that in early tests; see above). Even paying for the electricity, the EPA says that's like having a 95-mpg vehicle for the first 100 miles of a trip.
The Chevy Volt can drive much farther without burning a drop of gas -- an EPA-estimated 35 miles (20 to 50 in reliable independent tests, depending on driving style and weather) -- but when the gas engine does kick in, it gets a lower 37 mpg. Still, if you typically drive fewer than 35 miles a day, you could theoretically drive a Volt forever without burning any gas at all -- something you probably couldn't do in the Prius Plug-in.
TheTruthAboutCars.com's Dykes has an interesting experience with the Prius Plug-in. On his daily 109-mile commute over steep mountains, he gets outrageously great gas mileage from the Prius Plug-in (72 mpg) -- better than the Volt (48 mpg) or regular Prius (52.9 mpg). Why? The Plug-in's advanced batteries store four times as much juice as the regular Prius's, so they don't waste as much of the power the regenerative brakes feed them on Dykes' downhill descents ("a regular Prius fills its battery to capacity before I am 1/3 of the way down.") Meanwhile, when the gas engine fires up, the Plug-in gets better mileage than the Volt.
Over Dykes' entire 870-mile test, the Prius Plug-in averages about 60 mpg.
The Prius Plug-in's smaller batteries can't power the car as far as the Volt's, but they do take less time to fully recharge. It takes three hours on a regular 120-volt outlet (10 hours for the Volt) or 90 minutes on a 240-volt outlet (four hours for the Volt). The Prius Plug-in comes with a 24-foot charging cord that stows in a compartment under the cargo bay floor.
EPA Fuel Economy Estimates
The regular Toyota Prius's outstanding crash ratings also apply to the Prius Plug-in (the two share an identical body). The Prius Plug-in includes the usual standard safety features -- antilock brakes, traction and stability control and front, front-side and curtain airbags -- plus a driver knee airbag.
We found no reliability predictions for this new model. The Prius Plug-in carries three-year/36,000-mile basic and five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranties, plus eight years/100,000 miles for the hybrid component.
NHTSA Safety Ratings (based on 2012 Toyota Prius)
IIHS Safety Ratings (based on 2012 Toyota Prius)
Edmunds.com hasn't tested a production Prius Plug-in yet; a prototype felt heavier in the back but otherwise similar to a regular Prius. Editors here do a great job explaining the Plug-in's pros and cons relative to the regular hybrid Prius and to its plug-in rival, the Chevy Volt.
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in, Editors of Edmunds.com, Oct. 4, 2011
The Prius Plug-in's gas engine tends to kick on anytime you press the accelerator by more than one-third, ConsumerReports.org testers find -- so it never really runs on electricity alone. They find it offers the "same comfortable ride and relatively spacious interior" as the regular Prius.
Review: Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid -- Charged Up About Our Latest Test Car, Gabe Shenhar, April 23, 2012
Alex Dykes has better luck than ConsumerReports.org keeping the gas engine from kicking on in a pre-production Prius Plug-in. With a fully charged battery, he says the Plug-in stays in electric mode until he presses the accelerator three-quarters of the way to the floor. Another interesting development: On Dykes' mountainous 109-mile commute, the Plug-in sips far less fuel than either the regular Prius (which has no plug-in power) or the Chevy Volt (because of the Volt's lower gas-only fuel economy).
Review: Pre-Production Review: Toyota Prius Plug-in Take Two, Alex Dykes, July 13, 2011
It's roomier than a Chevy Volt, and it feels almost exactly like driving a regular Prius -- two things that should make the Prius Plug-in a big seller, Sebastian Blanco predicts after this short test.
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in, Sebastian Blanco, Sebastian Blanco
The federal government hasn't crash-rated the Prius Plug-in specifically, but the 2012 Prius (the two share an identical body) gets a 5-star overall government crash rating. It earns a perfect 5 stars in side crash tests, with 4 stars for frontal crash protection and rollover resistance.
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Similarly, IIHS hasn't rated the Prius Plug-in version -- but the 2012 Prius on which it's based is a Top Safety Pick. It earns the highest rating of Good in all of IIHS's crash tests.
Review: Toyota Prius, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
This page sums up EPA fuel-economy estimates for the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. Expect its plug-in power to last 11 miles, after which you'll wind up driving on the 50-mpg, gas-hybrid engine.
Review: New Plug-in Hybrids, Environmental Protection Agency