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Prius Plug-in

Tim Odell February 24, 2011 Toyota Reviews 62 Comments

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We need to get something straight: the vast majority of automotive consumers neither know, nor care what’s powering their vehicle. They want reliability, comfort, efficiency, adequate room, style and some perception of safety. They prefer infotainment to chassis dynamics, crossovers to wagons and attractive lease rates to aftermarket support. We are not these people. We buy used, we do our own maintenance, and we know more about a vehicle than whoever’s selling it to us. We are, from the perspective of auto companies, dealers and government regulators, a statistical anomaly, barely worthy of attention. We refuse to buy cars as commuting appliances, beasts of burden to get from A to B, the way They do.

But let’s imagine a world where these vehicles get double the mileage they do now. This is a world where reduced demand pushes fuel prices downward and increased sales of high mileage vehicles leave more room under the CAFE ceiling for kickass sports cars. Fewer emissions from the masses could lead to a loosening of smog regulations, too. With this in mind, we should love a car like the Prius Plug-in, so long as They are driving it.

With that in mind, we’ve set out to see if we, as the Resident Car Guys and Gals wherever we go, can really recommend the Prius Plug-in for Them.

The third generation Prius debuted as a 2010, but has been in the wild since early 2009. You’ve seen them, you’ve read the reviews. The mileage is up, the styling is arbitrarily lumpier. The Prius Plug-In (Toyota calls it the Prius PHV) takes an evolutionary baby step and adds extra battery capacity in the form of lithium-ion packs with the ability to top off the cells over night. Per the manual, it takes about 3 hours on a hefty 110V connection. Faster 220V charging doesn’t currently appear to be part of the picture. Alas, as the Prius PHEV is pre-production, they’re not yet releasing pricing, either.

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Given a full battery charge, the PHV is good for about 13 miles of all-EV driving, provided you keep the speed below about 45mph. This proved true in our experience, though most of our full-charge driving wasn’t just low-speed putting about town. Hit the freeway with a full charge and the extra electrons will help you climb hills or pass with less lethargy. It took roughly 35 miles (conveniently, half of a round-trip) of hilly 70-80mph freeway driving to drain the battery back down to regular hybrid mode. With the batteries in effect, we got a little over 55mpg, without, just under 50.

Lucky for us, but unfortunately for you, we were never able to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a full battery. Slogging through the particularly congested intersection of the 91 and 15 freeways, we were getting over 75mpg in regular hybrid mode. In general, the Prius largely alternates between getting an instantaneous 75-100mpg and low-to-mid 20s under load. String enough hills or high speed stop and gos together and you’ll get startlingly unimpressive mileage, given how hard the 1.8L gas motor works for its 98hp.

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In my introductory rant, I suggested that a Prius PHV could replace many of the compact or midsize cars out there. While many Camrys, Accords, Malibus and Maximas are bought for one or two-person hauling duty, those owners that actually put the fullness of their back seat to use (or haul lots of passengers…hiyo!), will need to look past the Prius PHV for family-hauler duty. With the tyranny of Junior’s center-mounted rear-facing car seat in full effect, space was in short supply between the seat and the door. Additionally, the rear side passenger seat belts were almost impossible to reach under the car seat.

Seating complications aside, the way-back doesn’t offer any more room than a typical trunk, given the sloped hatch and slightly raised floor (thanks to the larger battery). Buddy, our 55lb boxer couldn’t fit back there, at least in any alignment that wouldn’t result in a call from animal services. Unfortunately, we can’t recommend transporting larger items with the hatch partially open (but tied down), as the “door ajar” beeper never stops beeping. This can make a 15 minute drive home from the Christmas tree lot feel like the longest 15 minutes of your life (just ask my wife).

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It appears even the smallest families will be looking to the forthcoming Prius V (vee? five?) for their low-consumption motoring. So what of motorists doing single or double-passenger service? To that end, the Prius PHEV is perfectly acceptable, despite a cornucopia of minor annoyances. First off, going from a manual-transmission WRX to a Prius makes for some dicey moments in traffic when you’re used to acceleration that simply never comes in the Prius. Beyond that, it’s unclear what problems the time-tested PRNDL shifter layout had, but the Prius’ weird joystick-in-a-maze is no improvement. In addition to unnecessarily deviating from convention, it springs “home” after every selection, requiring a glance at the display to determine what gear you’re in. God forbid that gear be reverse, or you’ll be treated to an incessant, obnoxiously loud, in-car backup beeper. It’s unclear what scenarios Toyota felt necessitated this “feature”, but waiting to back out of a spot in the mall parking structure (where your backup lights are the only indication you want out) was not one of them. Sitting. Waiting. Beeping. The Beeper from Hell can actually be defeated (exclusively) by your dealer, but it’ll cost $50 and an hour of your time.

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The last Prius-in-general gripe is the display. Specifically, the mint-green LCD getup that feels like a mashup of early ’90s GM and a Game and Watch. At the least, it feels like a step back from the second generation Prius’ color screen and, frankly, is an embarrassment compared to the Volt and Fusion Hybrid’s mpg/charge displays.

But what of the PHV specifics of the Prius PHV? Provided you’ve garage to park in or in front of, complications are minimal. As expected, you just plug it in. While Toyota’s been kind enough to move the monitor brick off the plug and onto the cord, it’s not quite far enough down the cord to rest comfortably on the floor. While charging, it’d be nice to see a bit more of an indicator than the one light on the dash that turns green once charged. Lastly, the manual warns of dire consequences should the charge controller vents be blocked, but locating them under the passenger seat in prime small bag storage space suggests this might be a regular occurrence.

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Wow. Five paragraphs of complaints, some more nit-picky than others. It’s not that the Prius PHEV is so awful, it’s just that, save its ability to get great mileage, it’s without the redeeming features that earn a car kind words around these parts. But remember, this car’s not for us, it’s for them. Despite its original dorkmobile status, the Prius is now the hybrid standard-bearer, nearly a genericized trademark. As such, a Prius PHEV represents an evolutionary leap They can easily wrap Their heads around as a consumer purchase, in contrast to hype surrounding the (arguably superior) Volt. To that end, eliminating roughly $100 per month in fuel costs in a comfy, easy to operate car constitutes a redeeming feature. For Them, that is.

More info on the Prius PHV can be found from Toyota’s Environmental Safety & Quality Group: Overview, FAQ.

  • Deartháir

    TWISP AND CATSBY!

    That is all.

  • Good god the graphics on the side are hideous. Replace performance with silly stickers! It's like the malaise era all over again, except with more smug.

    • mad_science

      Sign me up for a Prius Brougham!

      (oh…wait…they already make the Lexus 250h)

    • sketchler

      The graphics are not a standard feature. They put them on a lot of the preproduction test models.

  • Lex

    First, a rant. My job unfortunately requires getting large, oddly shaped objects into cars. I can get a six foot tall fruit tree in a nursery pot into a Honda Civic. It's hilarious, but possible. (And let me say here that i appreciate pickup trucks like few others.) The problem is that our automotive safety gods have decided that no decklid shall have anywhere to tie it down for over-sized loads. I haven't yet encountered the door-ajar warning for trunks, but it doesn't surprise me…thankfully it's not my problem.

    Anyway, the nut of this piece is dead on. The cars we hate are cars for them. It's unlikely that we'll convince them that driving is not the same as washing clothes, so we can only hope that the automakers don't forget us in the pursuit of them.

    Seems to me like a lightweight sports car propelled by those fancy new, direct injected and boosted four cylinders would be a CAFE hit.

    • mad_science

      I've long been a fan of the VW BlueSport.

      Mid-engined, diesel sporty commuter. Why is that so hard?

      • Syrax

        I don't think that's ever going to happen. If anything it will translate to a douchier overpriced Porsche. Or Audi.

      • dukeisduke

        Sadly, this administration has gone "all in" for electric cars, at the exclusion of everything else, like clean diesels.

        • sketchler

          The problem with "clean" diesels is that they're not really very clean. They may do a bit better than their less efficient gasoline counterparts, but the NOx emissions inherent to the diesel engine are simply too much weight for even sheep urine to bear.

          • Deartháir

            Prior to 2009 model year, absolutely. Virtually every diesel on the market now has several NOx scrubber systems installed. There's very, very little NOx emission anymore.

          • Lex

            That may be, but we're a long way from a perfect, single solution. It's liking having to decide if we want cocoon like safety or good fuel efficiency because a fat car is always going to struggle to get good mileage.

            If we're looking for emissions free driving then electric is the only way. If we're looking to free ourselves from foreign oil than a blend of diesel and electric is the way to go, partly because biodiesel is a real possibility and can be produced without using food crops. (Like tack algae farms onto power stations to feed the algae CO2.)

            I've got no problem with electric vehicles per se, but one wouldn't do me much good given the climate i live in…shy of tech advances for batteries in cold conditions. A diesel would make a lot more sense for me and people with longer drives.

      • smokyburnout

        A Fiero for the 21st century!

      • facelvega

        why wait for VW to get its act together? Just make a Smyth G3F out of an old diesel jetta, Here's money saying it will be faster, handle better, and be more efficient than the bluesport if that ever actually appears.

        <img src="http://carphotos.cardomain.com/ride_images/4/401/1921/38500960001_large.jpg"&gt;

    • P161911

      "Seems to me like a lightweight sports car propelled by those fancy new, direct injected and boosted four cylinders would be a CAFE hit. "

      The Impala SS of the 1990s was actually in response to CAFE standards. The LT-1 V-8 was much more fuel efficient than the older V-8s in the Caprice at the time.

  • Hmm. So, in attempting to give it broad, universal appeal, so like-minded motorists around the world might save the world in unity, they continue to make the bloody thing so unremittingly boring that it appeals to nobody.

    That's like creating an elixir with magical health, strength and knowledge giving properties, and making it taste like water. Nothing wrong with that, but there are so many more interesting flavours out there.

    • Actually, I've always felt that the target market for the Prius is people who hate cars, but need one nonetheless. Something that's boring, gutless, "green," and shaped like a suppository like a Prius is just the thing for this demographic. They're the polar opposite of a Hoon.

      • That's what I was implying, like The Cast Of Glee being the perfect band for those who don't like music.

  • Jim-Bob

    I'll just go a head and say what is unpopular: Fuel economy in a daily driver matters. I never gave it much heed until gas prices went up a few years ago and haven't really come down since. Plus, with all the unrest in the oil producing countries, a fuel efficient vehicle limits your exposure to market forces. I am NOT saying you should give up having interesting cars to buy a Prius. I am saying that you should have one very efficient vehicle in your fleet to save money with. For me that car is a $250 3 cylinder Geo Metro that sees 43 MPG in city driving and saves me $200 a month compared to my V8 Cutlass (I drive 2,000-3,000 miles per month). After all, most driving is not enthusiast driving and instead involves being able to just keep up with traffic. Save the fun car for the times when you can have fun with it.

    • mad_science

      I think your solution (or similar) is what most people reading this site would recognize. Basically, that if the goal is to spend less money commuting, buying a $23,000 car to save a grand a year on gas puts you pretty far behind a sub-$5,000 car that's done depreciating and requires no loan.

      Of course, They are not interested in a 10-20 year old car, and that's understandable.

      I'm kind of a nutjob, in that a $5,000 '64 Falcon with a 260V8 that gets nearly 20mpg or regular constitutes the cheapest commuter in my fleet.

      • Jim-Bob

        I tried shopping for a new, cheap, reliable and efficient car but was aghast at just how much basic transportation costs these days. I don't mind a new car as it is nice to not have to worry about it but I couldn't justify the payments and insurance in this uncertain economy. I actually wish they would sell something as basic and frugal as the Metro in the US again because I would really consider buying it. However, most of today's small cars struggle to get into the 30's in city MPG and the savings just doesn't offset.

        That is also true of most hybrids vs normal cars. I priced out the total cost of ownership of a Prius vs a Yaris last year (the car was to be used for business) and came to the conclusion that I would have to drive something like 70k miles a year to make up for the difference in payment vs fuel savings. Until they make a much cheaper hybrid the technology will continue to be a niche product for greenies and not something you could buy for purely financial reasons.

        • mad_science

          If you had a short, slow, very stop-and-go commute, there's a lot of value to be had in a hyrbid, as that's where the regen really makes the biggest difference. That's why, despite their relatively high cost and complexity, you (or at least I) see them as meter maid cars and taxis pretty frequently.

          You could realistically get 75-100mpg with this car on a mostly-EV, mostly slow commute. If that pulls $100/month out of your fuel cost, that's $1200/year in savings. $6k over 5 years might not completely cover the gap between a Prius and a Yaris, but it probably would over a Corolla (a more direct comparison).

          There are also externalities like carpool access or tax breaks, but we'll leave those out. But, like you said, that's a pretty narrow market where it makes pure financial sense.

          On a more highway commute, a diesel VW makes a lot of sense (again, if we're talking new), as it'll get high 30s to low 40s without having to drive like a wuss and actually drives pretty well.

        • P161911

          Possibly against my better judgment, I just purchased some pretty basic new transportation. It offers seating for six adults, wind up windows, manual locks, the only available transmission is an automatic, A/C, a body sitting on a frame, and RWD. I got a choice of cloth or vinyl seats, but not a choice of color. The only two options I got were a limited slip diff and a CD player. It cost just under $20k with discounts and rebates. What is it? A 2011 Chevy Silverado WT extended cab complete with GM's ancient 4.3L V-6 (195HP/260ft. lbs.).

          My commute is less than 10 miles each way so gas isn't too much of a factor, the factory rating is 15/20 for the V-6 and 15/21 for the newer 5.3L V-8 which gets a 6sp. automatic in place of the 4spd auto and features cylinder deactivation. I need a vehicle with a back seat that would be hassle free for a while. I also use a truck on a regular enough basis to justify having one. I needed something safe enough to satisfy mother-to-be and grandparents to be for baby transportation. (Somehow a well abuse 1988 F-150 extended cab or a BMW Z3 with racing seats didn't qualify.) I will probably keep this truck for 10-15+ years so I see the acres of hard plastic as durable instead of cheap.

          I still hope to keep a second "fun" car too.

          • mad_science

            Holy crap…I didn't know they still made that engine!

          • hwyengr

            Wait, is that the Vortec 4300? Make sure you keep your garage stocked with MAF sensors.

            • P161911

              Yep, the Vortec 4300. For the next 5 years/100k miles the dealer had better keep the MAF sensors in stock. It comes with a 5yr/100k mile powertrain warranty.

          • Mechanically Inept

            A coworker of mine has a similar Silverado, from a few years ago. Regular cab, V6, RWD, crank windows and three pedals. The shifter is about a foot and a half long. It's awesome. I have absolutely no need for a truck, but I want one like his. Shit, it would probably get slightly better mileage than my 1997 Caravan with the 3 speed auto.

            • P161911

              They quit making the 3-pedal version, but still have all the info for it in the owner's manual. I wonder if it is sold on the export market, Mexico maybe?

              On my old 1988 F-150 5-spd I'm pretty sure I could play softball with the shifter if I took it off.

        • sketchler

          The problem with that comparison is that the Yaris is a small, tinny, cheap econobox. The Prius, on the other hand, slots between the Corolla and the Camry in both interior volume, all the while blowing even the Yaris away on fuel economy.

      • Perfectly understandable. I'm not interested in a 10-20 year old car myself; that's way too new.

        • BЯдΖǐL-ЯЄРΘЯΤЄЯ

          Agreed, mine makes 37 this year.

          • Alff

            One of the reasons I like Hooniverse – my 27 YO ride makes me a "new car guy".

            • FuzzyPlushroom

              At 19 and 21 (the latter turns 22 next month), I agree wholeheartedly.

    • I agree. I regret my decision to have a "fun" car as a daily driver, considering my commute is 10 miles each way along city streets, passing 25+ traffic lights along the way. At this point I'd gladly give up the fun if I could do better than 21 MPG on 91 octane (out of a 4 cylinder, which is pathetic), but it'd cost me more to buy a fuel efficient car that I wouldn't hate driving (sorry, no Metro for me) than it costs to just keep driving my car.

      • A beaterrific EF or EG Civic, mildly rust-eaten MR2, or (if you're a masochist) an un-burnt Fiero might fit the bill…

        • I'm not thrilled about the idea of downgrading to a 5-15 year older car than what I have now, since the one upside to my car is that it has been super reliable.

          • I take it you don't have garage space to make it an addition (with the current vehicle as a backup for longer trips or the days that the beater is out of commission for some reason or other) rather than a replacement?

            Maybe I've just been lucky, but my 20-year-old Honda hasn't been in the shop all that much more than the other, newer cars in my family's stable. It just makes a lot more racket.

            • I currently have a daily driver, a project car, a LeMons car, a former LeMons car that will serve as an engine donor for my race car, and a truck for towing/froading. I need another car like a hole in the head.

              Actually, my LeMons car has a hole in the head, which is why I have the donor.

    • That makes sense. Looking through Craigslist the other day, I saw a Metro that was priced reasonably (I forget how much), and thought that it would make a good econobox commuter. Then I saw a Suzuki Samurai priced about the same, and I figured that would work even better, plus, of course, being fairly capable offroad. Actually, the point is moot because I can just about see where I work from home, I can walk to work in about five minutes, if I choose.

      • seaninc

        I love 'Zuks. If I could one that wasn't rusted to hell I'd be driving it everyday.

        • Yeah, they're a lot of fun. My folks have had a Sidekick and a Vitara, I used to drive them all the time, and they do surprisingly well in the rough. The Suzi I saw was on Tucson Craigslist, 1200 bucks, and of course had no rust at all. You might want to take a look.

    • Lex

      I'm with you. Unfortunately, i kind of need a truck. Oh but if my state would let me drive a Kei truck on the road i'd be sooo happy. Given that at least 80% of my driving is limited to 25mph constraints of a Kei wouldn't affect me. Instead i'll keep driving my beater Yota because a new truck wouldn't get me significantly better mileage (and payments vs. a $1500 vehicle purchased four years ago make no sense).

      But i would buy a second, more efficient car if/when i can find the right opportunity.

  • <img src="http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5019/5435760792_704ca852f3.jpg"&gt;

    up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, select + start

    • So is this the code to get this thing to perform a fatality on itself?

      FINISH IT!

    • I think we need to be Facebook friends now…

    • VolvoNut

      R->reverse
      N->neutral
      D->drive
      B-> ?

      • I believe that kicks on engine braking…

        • Nicely said, Jeff.

          I am glad you come back from time to time.

          • I am always lurking in the shadows…
            except when I'm not.

            • Smooth Jeff.

              As an aside, I do enjoy your posts on the vatoblog. They have a nice level of Gluckerisms, which makes them funnier than most vatoblog posts.

              • haha, thank you good sir.

                I try to squeeze them in when I can…

        • You are correct. My fiancee's Highlander Hybrid has it too. I actually used it when towing my LeMons car with it down a long grade.

    • sketchler

      Funny you should say that. I can't vouch for this iteration completely, but on the NHW20 Prius (2004-2009) at least, the indoor reverse beeper can be defeated by the user, but it requires sort of an automotive equivalent to the cheat code which includes pushing the TRIP/ODO button a few times, cycling the car on then off then on, shifting into and out of reverse twice, and so on. It's hilarious to explain, and you may have experienced something similar with the sequence Ford trucks use to disable and enable the BeltMinder system.

    • packratmatt

      If that activated the Spread Gun, I'd buy one.

  • dukeisduke

    Ditch the goofy stripes, and get some new wheels. Who puts plastic wheel covers over alloy wheels? Oh yeah, Toyota.

  • DAGK!!!!

    Something must be wrong with my computer. (runs anti-Prius scan)

    • mad_science

      Apologies…sort of.

      For all the time we spend fawning over ridiculous automotive technologies of years gone by, I was prepared to love this car for it's potential to save gas (to be used later on track days) and minimize the overall automotive footprint on the environment and economy (opening up more room for the rest of us to play). Hell, even having a commuter mule for the daily slog might be an acceptable option for some of us if it's a good enough just plain car. Alas, it wasn't.

      • No, don't back down– rumor has it sometimes ZomBee drives a smart.

      • No need, I just had to share my "vurp" reaction.

        I rented a 1st gen Prius on vacation to the Florida Keys a few years ago and flogged it all the way from Orlando down to Key West just to see what kind of "car" it was and how low I could get the mileage to read. 🙂

        Verdict. it wasn't bad, but it sure wasn't great. My biggest complaint was getting the damn thing started late-night at an empty Hertz terminal with no manual or instruction. (Push ignition TWICE?? FFFUUU!!) We sat there a long time thinking it was broke before accidentally starting it.

        It was also one of the cars that were completely silent, so I had to open my window and say "excuse me" to get pedestrian's attention when I came up behind them. I followed a group walking to breakfast through an entire parking lot just for fun and they had no idea I was there till I startled them by saying "Beep-beep!"

        Oh, and it's butt ugly.

        • Funny thing is, I thought the 2nd gen cars were perfectly acceptable looking. The 3Gs seem to have gone back to their awkward dorkmobile roots.

        • Lex

          Like in Weeds when the drug dealer buys Prii for all his boys…'cause they're good for sneaking up on motherf@#*ers.

  • Mechanically Inept

    I love sports cars and race cars, I love real driving, but sometimes I absolutely hate cars. Living in the suburbs makes car ownership almost mandatory, but I see no reason why I should have to get into my car and burn a gallon of gas every day for the privilege to haul my ass to and from work. Getting 17 MPG hurts a lot, especially when my car provides me with absolutely no joy. Rising oil prices are fine with me, inflation and the finiteness of oil are just a reality, but all the speculation is utter bullshit. I'm no economics or oil expert, but it seems that unless something is really threatening the supply of oil, there should not be such sharp increases in the cost of the stuff.

    Unfortunately, we've built so much of our society and infrastructure around oil that weaning ourselves off of it will be like turning the Titanic. Electric cars are just a band-aid on our flawed way of life…

    • Mechanically Inept

      And, on that note, I'm gonna go fill my tank before gas goes up another 20 cents in two days. Used Civics are starting to look really appealing.