Thumbs Up: If you want fuel economy and range, this is your car.
Thumbs Down: Nothing here for driving enthusiasts, cheap interior.
Buy This Car If: You care more about spending as little as possible on gas than you do about performance or handling.
This may come as a shock to driving enthusiasts, but the cold, hard truth is this: most people don’t like to drive. For the masses, driving is an act to be tolerated, not enjoyed, and any conveyance that gets them from point A to point B with as little fuss and expense as possible is optimal.
That explains the popularity of boring-but-reliable compacts and midsize sedans, and it also explains why the Toyota Prius has become the most popular green car on the planet. Instead of precise handling, stunning acceleration or pull-the-glasses from your face braking, the Prius serves up a generous portion of frugality and bulletproof reliability. For many buyers, that’s the winning combination.
There are some for which even the Prius isn’t frugal enough, which is why Toyota launched a plug-in hybrid variant for the 2012 model year. In addition to the Prius’ 50 mpg combined fuel economy rating, the Prius Plug-In can travel an estimated 11 miles on battery power alone, at speeds up to 62 mph. That may not be enough to get you back and forth to work, but chances are good it’s plenty for running daily errands.
Unlike electric cars, which require lengthy charging periods to achieve full range, the Prius Plug-In’s 4.4 kWh batteries can be replenished in about three hours on 110 volts, or about an hour and a half on 220 volt service. When the batteries are depleted, or when the driver wants maximum power, the car’s 1.8-liter gasoline-fueled engine steps in to provide a helping hand. In fact, keeping the car in full electric vehicle mode takes some practice and requires very gentle applications of throttle, with the car kept in Eco mode. Acceleration, therefore, is minimal, and drivers trying this would be wise to check the rearview mirror for rapidly closing pickups or SUVs.
Styling wise, the Prius’ semi-futuristic shape lends to its appeal. An aerodynamic form is essential to the car’s superior fuel economy, yet the Prius serves up a generous amount of interior room. Its large daylight opening helps visibility, too, although the rear deck lid spoiler does significantly reduce what you can see in the rear view mirror. Compared to standard Prius models, the Plug-In version (in Advanced trim) is distinguished by its metallic front bumper strip, exterior chrome accents, blue headlight surrounds and unique wheels. Whether that’s an improvement or not depends upon your exterior styling tastes.
Inside, the Prius Plug-In is a bit disappointing, especially in light of the car’s $40,000 sticker price. The dash is an expanse of hard, drab plastic, but Toyota does get bonus points for using a plant-derived, environmentally-friendly plastic. There’s an odd pass-though space, fitted with a shallow tray, beneath the center console, but access is awkward from the driver’s seat. As for layout, we do like that the center stack controls are oriented to the driver, creating a cockpit-like space that separates the driver from the front-seat passenger.
We’ll admit to liking the Prius Plug-In’s instrumentation, too, although the information display does take some setting up and some getting used to. It’s amusing to see that this press-fleet example has spent 99-percent of its current lifespan in gasoline mode, while only one-percent of its accumulated mileage has been in full electric mode. We suspect that Prius Plug-In owners who pay a $7,800 premium over the cost of a standard Prius will be far more diligent about using their cars in full-electric mode.
We’re not really fans of the Prius Plug-In’s front seats, either. Though supportive enough for commuting duties (and complete with power-adjustable driver’s lumbar support in Advanced models), they’re wrapped in a material called SofTex that Toyota says is lighter and more durable than leather. That may be, but SofTex also has a decidedly artificial feel, and we can’t imagine climbing into the car on a hot day, wearing shorts. We’ve flogged this particular dead horse enough times in the past, but we’ll say it again: we’d take cloth seats over fake leather seats any day of the week. In fact, we’d even pay more for decent cloth seats that we’d pay for those skinned in cow-from-a-test-tube.
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Advanced
As for the rear seats, well, they’re wrapped in SofTex, too. On the plus side, there’s a decent amount of head and leg room for average sized adults, so we doubt that second-row passengers will complain much about the accommodations on short trips. Unless, of course, it’s summertime and they’re wearing shorts.
Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive blends a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine with a pair of electric motors that double as generators. Combined, the drivetrain puts out 134 horsepower and mates to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which further boosts fuel economy. A 4.4 kWh battery pack gives the Prius it’s 11-mile electric range, though critics are quick to point out that’s not really enough to be practical. The EPA says the Prius Plug-In will return 51 mpg in the city, 49 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg combined on gasoline power only; factor in the battery power, and the car gets a rating of 95 MPGe. As you’d expect from a car focused on fuel economy, acceleration is on the leisurely side; in Power mode, the best you can hope for is a time of around 10.1 seconds to get to 60 mph.
On the road, the Prius Plug-In’s ride is on par with others in the economy car class. That means its neither too soft nor too firm, though there’s no chance you’ll mistake the car’s ride quality for a luxury car. Likewise, it isn’t sporty by any definition of the word. The steering feels light, yet the car feels oddly heavy. Push hard in corners, and there’s surprisingly little body roll, probably because the low-rolling-resistance tires don’t offer up much in the way of grip. While “entertaining” isn’t a word we’d use to describe the Prius Plug-In’s handling, words like “predictable” and “safe” do come to mind.
So perhaps the Prius Plug-In is a reality check for us. We can’t imagine any kind of alternate universe where we’d be in the market for one, because it simply doesn’t meet our expectations for what a car should be. For the thousands of satisfied Prius owners, however, the car represents the best alternative for getting from one place to another while consuming as little fuel as possible. These buyers don’t care about things like 0-60 times, or lateral acceleration, or even stopping distances; instead, they speak of miles per tank or miles per gallon with the same gleam in their eye as we have when discussing lap times. They’re every bit the enthusiasts we are, albeit with a slightly different focus.
Toyota supplied the 2012 Prius Plug-In Advanced for the purpose of this evaluation. Total sticker price on the car, which came without options, was $40,365.
The Prius Plug-In Advanced is a difficult car to draw a comparison with, since it exists in a gray area between hybrids and electric cars. For illustration, a comparably-equipped Prius Four would sticker for $29,030, but wouldn’t include the Prius Plug In’s battery-only driving range. A similar Chevy Volt would sell for $42,785 but includes a significantly longer range (up to 50 miles) on battery power alone. When the range-extending generator kicks in, however, the Volt simply can’t match the Prius’ fuel economy.