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Plug-in hybrid Prius a money saver for urban drivers

Overall Rating
Plug-in hybrids have been flying under the radar, but ones like this Prius might end up having serious appeal for true believers on a budget. You'll like this car if: you drive only short hops and want to save money on fuel and go "green."
Looks Rating
The Prius PHV is a hatchback with a shape intended to maximize aerodynamics. It's tall and a little boxy looking and has a chopped-off tail. Not particularly pretty.
Interior Rating
For a car with the footprint of a compact, the Prius PHV has the cabin space of a mid-size. The only downside is the hard plastic materials all over.
Ride Rating
All-electric mode means there are no engine sounds, therefore all sorts of other sounds pop up and become an annoyance. The brake pedal needs more conventional feel, too. Acceleration in the city is very good thanks to the torque of an electric motor.
Safety Rating
The regular Prius is very safe and Toyota surely will make this one amazingly safe, too.
Green Rating
Any car that can save you $1,700 a year in fuel costs is a "green" car - especially one with such low CO2 numbers.

Okay, let's just imagine you're the owner of a 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle (PHV). You're a conscientious sort, the kind of person who cares about the environment and is willing to spend a little extra to drive something really green - say, $3,000-$5,000 up front over the $27,800 Toyota Canada charges for the regular Prius.

What do you save on fuel?

Toyota Canada says the Prius PHV has miserly fuel consumption rated at 1.75 litres/100 km. CO2 emissions come in at 41 g/km, which is an amazing number.

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That, of course, is if you stick to the specified driving conditions for combined electric vehicle and hybrid vehicle modes. Do this and compared to the typical conventional mid-size automobile you will reduce your fuel consumption by 1,650 litres (83 per cent) and CO2 emissions by almost 4,000 kg (or four tonnes), says Toyota.

In other words, your gas bill would go down by about $1,900 a year (based on regular unleaded selling at $1.157 a litre). On the other hand, you will spend $150-$200 a year on electricity to charge up your Prius PHV, thus the net savings is around $1,700 a year. Not bad.

Compromises? Range, naturally. The Prius PHV will travel no more than about 20 km on an electric charge alone. After that, you're in a normal Prius hybrid.

Still, the Prius PHV recharges in two or three hours on a standard 110/120-volt household outlet, versus six to eight or more on 240 volts for a pure electric car such as the Nissan Leaf. That's because the Leaf needs more juice to fill its bigger battery pack to go 160 km or less.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles, folks, are in the mix of green vehicles headed to showrooms in the next one to two years. Toyota plans to begin selling the Prius PHV in 2012. They are being tested in Canada right now as part of a deployment of 500 prototypes worldwide. I drove my tester in Vancouver.

Just so we're all on the same page, PHVs are designed to go 20 km or so on battery-power alone, then become normal hybrids with the usual blend of gas and electric power. In other words, the Prius PHV acts like a normal hybrid once the electric-only range is maxed out.

The idea behind PHV is to give owners who do short-range hops an electric-only option. Toyota is not alone here, either. Also planned for 2012: a Ford Focus PHV and a Honda "mid-size to larger" PHV.

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My Prius PHV prototype seemed like a reasonable urban runabout. If I owned one, the only bother would be the frequent recharging.

For the average householder, that involves popping open a door like a gasoline filler flap on the left front fender. A fat, round plug snaps into the car's receptacle, with the other end plugged into a standard household outlet. Nothing special is required to charge up.

Battery range will vary depending on conditions - if you live in a hilly area or on cold days when you use the juice-draining heater, seat warmers, defrosters, headlights. Drivers keep track of range by watching a display in the instrument panel.

The Prius PHV can also be programmed with a button push to perform in different ways: "power" mode is peppy, "normal" mode is, well, normal, and "eco" slows down acceleration and makes the gas engine more reluctant to start and add power. The transition from electric-motor-only to electric and gas was almost always smooth, though from time to time the car suffered a light shudder when the gas engine kicked in.

The rest of the Prius PHV story is completely unsurprising. This high-roof hatchback has a very big cabin for a car with a compact-car footprint. Four or five people fit easily and the cabin itself is pleasant enough, aside from all the hard plastic.

In driving, the car feels pretty much like a regular Prius, except that in battery mode there is no noise. Toyota should work on improving the brake feel, making the pedal seem less numb and instead more like conventional brakes rather than "regenerative brakes" which recharge the battery pack when applied.

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Certainly acceleration was strong enough for any true believer in this technology. The electric motor is rated at 80 horsepower and 153 lb-ft of torque and the 1.8-litre gasoline engine at 98 hp at 5,200 rpm, 105 lb-ft. at 4,000 rpm. This is the same power as the current Prius.

Plug-ins like this Prius have been largely overlooked and generally buried in the hype surrounding pure electric cars such as the Leaf. The thing is, for the driver who does only short hops, the fuel savings and environmental benefits may just justify the trouble required to plug in, saving big money in the process.

Tech Specs

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid (prototype)

Type: Mid-size hatchback

Price: $32,000 (estimated when on sale in 2012; $1,490 freight)

Gas engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 98 hp/105 lb-ft

Electric motor: 80 hp/153 lb-ft

Transmission: Two-speed CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 1.75 combined; regular gas

Alternatives: None at present

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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