Fifteen months ago, Toyota loaned us a test mule of this car, a pre-production version of what is now available in many states as a 2013 model.
Not your ordinary gas-electric hybrid, that Prius mule had a heavy-duty electrical socket on its left front flank and huge decals on the doors: PLUG-IN HYBRID.
Included was a hefty cable with a three-prong wall plug on one end, a special Prius plug on the other, and a transformer box inbetween.
I hooked it up, then went to the meter on the house, expecting to see the little wheel whirling madly and emitting sparks and smoke. Nope. My clothes dryer spins it faster.
That was then. Now, this is the production model, known as the Prius Plug-in and one of four distinct Prius variants. Besides equipping it well, Toyota has made some big changes since the mule. For starters, the plug receptacle has been moved to the right rear fender and the decals are gone. Way more important is that the car’s road behavior has been improved considerably. The steering now has some weight to it, the energy-recapturing brakes feel more progressive and offer useful feedback, and the vehicle will go around corners semi-smartly. The Plug-in Prius feels like a comfortable car; the mule resembled an ultralight airplane.
The drivetrain still offers some of that sensation of a rubber band that has to be stretched before the car will move, but far less so than, say, a Kia hybrid. The annoying backup alarm is still with us too. Since it’s audible only inside the car, what’s the point?
Every Prius, you’ll recall, has a 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor, plus a big bank of batteries. Both motors are connected to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission and both are controlled by a complex computer program. The computer decides from moment to moment whether the car should run on gas, on electricity or on both, and when it’s time for the gas engine to recharge the batteries. It also shuts off the gas engine whenever the car stops—at intersections, for example—and then instantly starts it again, as needed. What sets the Plug-in apart from other Priuses is that the batteries can be topped up in a couple of hours on household current, as opposed to being recharged only while the car is underway. This should extend the range of what’s in the gas tank.
When we unplug the Prius and start it—or activate it, since the gas engine doesn’t light up, at least right away—the dashboard indicates that 10 to 12 miles of electric propulsion are possible. OK, time to go sneak up on pedestrians in run-silent, nuclear-sub mode. But no; each time I rolled out of the driveway, the internal-combustion engine started almost immediately, no matter how gingerly I toed the throttle.
I was unable to go more than a mile or two on electricity only, mostly downhill, whereas the pre-production mule would go a dozen miles or so, at speeds up to about 45 miles per hour, before running out of juice and shifting to gasoline. But that was in June and it is now November—fully 50 degrees colder, with all the extra friction that this brings.
Still, at a computer-indicated average of 45 MPH the Plug-in Prius still delivered 51 miles per gallon overall. This included several hundred interstate miles with the cruise control set at 77 MPH, making this the best highway fuel efficiency I’ve ever experienced. Had I stuck to driving around town, the car might have hit Toyota’s predicted 94 miles per gallon, especially when it warmed up. (The mule gave me 84.1 MPG in town.)
The bad news? This car costs $40,628. Even after federal and any state income-tax credits, that’s big money for an econo-car, even one with all this standard equipment. It might not come back in savings at the pump, at least until gas hits $5 a gallon again, but what price do we put on spewing less carbon into the atmosphere?