By on February 28, 2011

It’s not every day that an automotive blogger gets to drive the future of transportation, a radical rethinking of how we interact with our private transport, and yet that’s exactly what I recently did. And no, I’m not talking about the Prius Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV)… that’s just a Prius with some larger batteries and re-worked software. No, what makes our time with this particular Prius noteworthy is that it isn’t technically private transport. Welcome to the future: the public plug-in hybrid (PPHEV).

This Prius Plug-In is not some press-fleet hack, nor is it a carefully-fettled launch vehicle, but a publicly-accessible, real-world test fleet vehicle that Toyota uses to gain insights into how its evolution of the Prius holds up to the rigors of regular use. Toyota has produced some 600 Prius PHEVs, and has delivered about 150 to different testing partners around the US, who are helping the Japanese automaker test its first lithium-ion battery-equipped plug-in ahead of regular production sales, which begin in 14 US states in 2012.

This particular model is one of two operated in Portland, OR, by the car-sharing firm Zipcar. As a publicly-accessible plug-in vehicle, this is one special Prius; after all, as TTAC has explained, private ownership of EVs is a problematic proposition. The biggest issue with buying a plug-in: batteries degrade significantly over time, raising the specter of killer depreciation. As a result, the more conservative automakers like Daimler and BMW are looking at Zipcar-like car sharing schemes for their forthcoming EVs. But, as we found, publicly-shared plug-ins aren’t exactly a silver bullet either.

The major problem with shared EVs? Like Blanche DuBois, they rely on the kindness of strangers. When we showed up at a Portland State University parking structure to pick up our Plug-In Prius, its mobile charging unit was plugged into a 120V outlet, but its charging plug lay on the floor next to the decal-wearing Prius. So much for a full test of the Prius PHEV’s electric range and fully-charged performance then… but the experience was an important real-world lesson in the downfalls of EV-sharing. And as the industry transitions towards greater electrification, business model innovations are as important as technological breakthroughs. So what’s worse: wallet-melting depreciation, or total dependence on the last driver’s conscientiousness?

In the case of the Prius, at least the forgetfulness of Joe College Student won’t leave you stranded. Had I rented a Nissan Leaf or a similar pure-EV from Zipcar, I would have been as good as stranded with less than a third of the battery left. Instead I got a as many miles as I wanted of relaxed hybrid driving. Not only is Toyota’s decision to rigorously test its PHEV in public vindicated by our experience with the uncharged Zipcar, but its decision to incrementally improve the Prius rather than leaping into a pure EV also delivers a far more practical vehicle for handling the downsides of car sharing.

Unfortunately, the decision to evolve the Prius also means there’s not much to report in terms of driving impressions that a jaunt in a regular Prius wouldn’t have covered (whether fully-charged or not). When fully charged, the Prius PHEV gets a claimed 13 miles of pure-electric driving before switching into EV mode, a feature that Toyota say plays well with car-sharers who typically take short trips. With less than a third of the Li-ion battery’s charge remaining, we got less than a mile of silent running before heading up into the hills above Portland, when the PHEV kicked into the mixed-hybrid mode that Prius owners know and love. Strangest of all in a vehicle that wears its electric credentials all over its sheet metal: there’s no “EV Mode” button as in the standard Prius.

And, as it turns out, we weren’t missing out on too much pure-EV fun anyway. Over the last 2,790.6 miles driven by our Prius PHEV, EV mode was only used some 15 percent of the time, and in our time with it (granted, without a full charge) it took a seriously light foot to keep it running on Grand Coulee Dam current. The Prius PHEV’s gas engine kicks in early and often as its 650-Volt electric motor’s 153 lb-ft of torque struggle to motivate all 3,130 lbs (about 240 lbs more than the standard Prius), at all but the most leisurely speeds. Only in “Power” mode, does the Atkinson-cycle gas engine woof with conviction, giving the Prius PHEV the kind of acceleration that won’t leave your buttocks clenching uncontrollably on freeway on-ramps. In “Eco” mode, the Plug-In resists every pedal application until just shy of WOT, when it finally booms into action. Strangely, “Eco” Mode doesn’t seem to make accessing electric drive any easier.

So, what kind of mileage can you expect from the Prius Plug-In? We will have to hold a more thorough test (once we figure out how to ensure the thing is fully charged when we pick it up) for definitive results, but the PHEV’s on-board computer indicates that, like the Volt, the Prius PHEV is as efficient as you want it to be. For short trips of 26 and 29 miles, drivers received about 60 and 75 MPGs respectively. A longer trip of 54 miles returned near 99 MPG, indicating a near-delta of distance and efficiency. After all, the farther any PHEV is driven, the worse its mileage becomes, as evidenced by 50 MPG results for two “trips” of 440 miles and 2,296 miles. Of course, none of these numbers are exactly scientifically verified, but short there are numerous reports of Prius PHEVs returning in excess of 99 MPG on short trips, with long-range mileage dropping to regular Prius levels (or even lower, thanks to the extra battery weight). In any case, we will certainly be testing the Prius PHEV again with an eye towards obtaining a better sense of its mileage capabilities (and of course we will report Toyota’s official test data when it becomes available later this year).

But despite the fact that we weren’t able to take home solid efficiency numbers, we learned a few important lessons from our time with the Prius PHEV. For one thing, ride sharing will not be a viable alternative to EV ownership until operators learn how to require users to plug in vehicles when they’re done. For another, until plug-in enforcement takes place, the Prius PHEV is the plug-in to share. Under similar circumstances, a Nissan Leaf would have been effectively stranded and a Chevy Volt would have returned only slightly better than 30 MPG. Also, the Prius’s uninspiring but wholly competent performance is unchanged by the addition of extra Lithium-ion batteries. And between its joyride-inhibiting handling, modest power, anodyne styling and easy-to-use, minimalist interior, the Prius was already the straight-out-of-a-vending-machine car of the future.

The Volt beats the Prius PHEV for efficiency if you typically drive between 13 and 40 miles between charges, but then the pure-electric Leaf is the plug-in commuter of choice for green conscious consumers with a sub-100 mile commute. Otherwise, the Volt handles considerably better than the Prius PHEV, has a handy regenerative “low gear” and its performance feels less computer-strangled… but the Prius’s (likely) lower price, superior interior space and design and better efficiency over long-distance trips could well make it the more practical, flexible choice. But until we test a production car, that’s all speculation. For now, car-sharing programs looking for some green-car hype have only one real choice… and given how inconsiderate some car sharers can be, it’s a pretty good one.

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38 Comments on “Quick Review: Toyota Prius Plug-In...”

  • avatar

    It remains unclear how real-world fuel economy can be calculated for such a vehicle. Ideally, we’d have both the gallons of gas and KWH of electricity used for a given number of miles, but it’s not clear that the cars will provide this information. The Volt certainly doesn’t provide KWH consumed, at least not in the car.

    Ed, does the plug-in Prius provide this info?

    Once we figure it out, it’ll be here:

    • 0 avatar

      When the energy used gets recorded, it should include the electric input to the charger; not just the output.

    • 0 avatar

      I wasn’t able to find a KWH consumed readout. The electronics are old-school compared to the Volt’s, and there’s no online energy consumption data access or phone link like the Volt has. On the other hand, the Prius has the iPod-alike user experience (minimalist, intuitive) that the Volt interior hints at but utterly fails to deliver on.

    • 0 avatar

      When Electricity costs 1/10 of gas, because of price and Electric Motor Efficiency, it can be virtually ignored.

    • 0 avatar

      It is scientifically impossible for Electricity to cost 1/10th of gas  because of the laws of thermodynamics. Since the electricity IS NOT being generated by the SUN…that means somewhere coal, oil, etc is being burned in order to produce this electricity which is going to lose efficiency as it is transported via wires. Therefore, this electricity is going to cost SOMEONE and it’s gonna cost them a hell of a lot more than the Gasoline would have cost.

      what GM and Toyota need to do (or some third party auto after market manufacturer needs to do) is create a SOLAR PANEL ultraview sunroof for these cars that doesn’t weigh very much. This way the panel can trickle charge the battery when the car is parked in front of the driver’s workplace or home.

      AND BEFORE SOMEONE SAYS: “o that can’t be done…and that won’t work” I’ll have you know the Nissan Leaf has one on it’s spoiler.


    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      You may or may not be aware of this, but the Pacific Northwest gets most of its electricity from hydro power (ie: the dams on the Columbia & Snake rivers). As such, the power that TTAC’s Editor-in-Chief, myself, and everyone else fortunate enough to live in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho utilize has some of the lowest electric rates in the country and doesn’t require significant amounts of fossil fuel (coal, oil) to produce.

    • 0 avatar

      Even the efficiency of your Hydro electric power ource is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore, you will lose a huge percentage of power produced and that inneficiency will still end up being made up by fossil fuel burning.

      You think Hydro is gonna power homes and electric cars there exclusively?
      It will NEVER happen.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      “You think Hydro is gonna power homes and electric cars there exclusively?
      It will NEVER happen.”
      Read this:
      “In the Pacific Northwest alone, hydropower provides about two-thirds of the region’s electricity supply.2”
      2/3rds of the region’s electrical supply isn’t a tidbit. It’s a majority.

    • 0 avatar

      Au contraire: it is indeed scientifically possible for Electricity to cost 1/10th of gas.  Are you forgetting about The Dismal Science, aka Economics?
      Whether it be hydro vs. petro, taxes, or the irrationality of markets, it is easy for electricity to cost less than gas.  Heck, a bottle of water costs more in the Pacific Northwest than a gallon of gasoline, and water isn’t exactly a scarce commodity in that region.

    • 0 avatar

      Ed N: “there’s no “EV Mode” button as in the standard Prius.”
      Just as well.  The EV Mode button in the standard Prius is a nice novelty for the first couple of weeks, but it is pretty useless in real life.   IF the battery has a decent amount of charge, you can sneak around for about 1 mile as long as you don’t accelerate very hard AND manage to stay below 25mph.  Otherwise the car kicks itself out of EV mode and fires up the gas engine anyway.
      Pretty soon, I figured it was more efficient to leave it in ECO or Normal mode and just drive.  That gives you upto 40mph on electric power, which is a little more practical.  Unless there is some use-case which really justifies keeping it, I think Toyota should ditch the EV button and associated circuitry, and use the money elsewhere in the car.

    • 0 avatar

      You can thank each American since 1960 until 2060 that is paying for your hydroelectric power plants in the Northwest. Thanks to our coal burning power plants, you got your water power. You got cheap rates thanks to us too.

      You’re welcome.

    • 0 avatar

      33.7 kWh of energy per gallon of gas. At 90% charging efficiency and 6.2 cents per kWh (lowest rate in North America, WV), electric fuel cost is $2.32 per gallon.  That’s fairly cheap considering the Leaf, for example, gets 99 miles per gallon of electricity.  But I wouldn’t ignore it, especially since other states pay up to $5.87 per gallon of electricity (NY). I don’t know where the “1/10 of gas” cost is coming from.

  • avatar

    Boy the Prius is hideous. And as far as interior and exterior styling is concerned, the Volt looks leaps and bounds ahead.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re similar enough.  Even if the Volt is subjectively more stylish, Toyota’s consoling themselves with the knowledge that their vehicle has less drag.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Amazingly hideous, but it isn’t like it’s marketed to people who actually like cars, so it doesn’t really matter.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, this is like arguing who is hotter: Rosanne or Rosie O’Donnell.

    • 0 avatar

      Firstly, the Prius is designed to be aerodynamic. It’s exterior styling is actually something of a compromise compared to more slippery designs like the one on my first gen Insight.
      Also, while the Volt may have a higher quality interior, it’s also a lot more expensive. The Prius starts at around 9000 less than the Volt. You can’t honestly expect Toyota to give you the same level of refinement for 9 grand less.
      Also, M-1, it’s possible for people to like cars for different reasons than you do. I like cars, and yet I still got an old Insight because I don’t like spending money driving across the flat, straight wastelands of Wyoming.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    No matter how the ownership is structured, someone gets caught with the depreciation of that expensive battery pack.

    • 0 avatar

      If the pack only looses 10% of it’s capacity after 10 years there’s nothing to worry about.
      Where do you guys get your info?  Fat-Drug-Addict-Koch-Head on the Radio?

    • 0 avatar

      Based on the size of the battery pack, which is much smaller than the Volt’s, and given how li-ion prices are coming down, I’m guessing the pack in the plug-in Prius will be about $2500-$3000 above the standard Prius. And it should deteriorate more slowly, because it will never discharge any faster than the software will let it, since the gas motor is ready to kick in instantly.
      I think Toyota can/may/will price this way below the Volt, at around $3-4k over the standard Prius. Since its battery qualifies for about a $3k Fed tax credit based on the battery capacity, it’s distinctly possible that the net price of the Prius PHEV will be little or none above the price of a regular Prius. Now that makes an interesting economic possibility and a substantial contrast to the Volt.
      I think the PHEV Prius is the most pragmatic and economic viable plug-in for many issues, including the situation described here (not having been plugged in).

  • avatar

    Does this Prius also start the gasoline engine as soon as you start moving when you first turn it on?
    Does this Prius give the same electric thrust as a normal one? Hopefully, with the larger battery capacity we could get a bit more thrust and a higher electric-only top speed.
    I drove a rental Prius, which, admittedly, was the most fun I’ve had in an automatic-transmissioned car (except that time with the girlfriend… but that had nothing to do with driving and we weren’t even in the front seats).  Anyway, I wish there were a mode where it was very easy to ask for max electric thrust but more difficult to accidentally push the pedal too hard and fire up the ICE.  Same with braking… make it easy to get maximum regenerative breaking without engaging the conventional brakes.  I tried EC mode, but that didn’t seem to do what I wanted.  With a double-battery Prius, I would wish for this ability even more.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, the Prius has no geared transmission, auto or manual, in the usual sense – see link for an explanation of how the power from the engine and two motor/generators is combined and controlled.  “This power split achieves the benefits of a continuously variable transmission (CVT), except that the torque/speed conversion uses an electric motor rather than a direct mechanical gear train connection.”
      BTW – the driving experience for the 2004-2009 Prius is quite different than the 2010 and later – the 2010 has been numbed by the computers to the point of being irritating compared to the earlier version.  The problem is the default ECO mode which decides that unresponsive is “more efficient” than learning how to drive skillfully.  If you switch to PWR mode then it feels like the earlier model.
      I get just as good gas mileage in the 2005 version but it is much more pleasant to drive.
      link –

  • avatar

    Enforcing a plug-in requirement for shared users will be problematic.  After all, how do you know the previous driver didn’t leave it plugged in?  Maybe he did and some college jolly jokester (or Chevy Volt salesman :) came along and unplugged it.

    • 0 avatar

      Integrated vehicle communications via cell phone back to the home office would be one way to help manage the issue. If you fail to plug in at the destination, Zipcar would know and could hit the last customer with a surcharge (kind of like not rewinding the VHS tape before returning it to the video store). The Better Place model uses this kind of communication to manage battery charge levels vs. the driver’s destination. If GM can add smart phone apps to control their cars, anyone should be able to do it as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Another system I was thinking of was remote video.  Since all the pickup / dropoff stations are known, and all stations for plug-ins have to have electricity, perhaps they could build in a IP camera that sends video back to a central ownership location.  Along with ClutchCarGo’s suggestion of checking plugged in status, it could be used to identify if it was the previous driver who left it unplugged or some passerby who came by and unplugged it.
      Then you could sanction the previous drivers who don’t plug in, or determine if you need to do something else about that location if there are too many pranksters.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think being vindictive towards the previous driver is the solution since it won’t solve the problem.
      Why not just have the car beep like crazy when it’s back at the pickup location and hasn’t been plugged back in?  Since (if my memory serves) you check out through the smartphone app, it would be easy to check whether the car is plugged in, and complain immediately.  Then the driver could sheepishly return and plug the car in.  As long as that was done within, say, 10 minutes of checkin, the fee could be waived.

  • avatar

    If you never use the battery, will it take longer for its degrading capacity to get past halfway? As in, can you preserve the battery?

    Please answer!

  • avatar
    Mike Kelley

    I would have a lot more enthusiasm for this EV stuff if the environmentalist zealots that now run the US would let us build any sensible power generating capacity.  We are the biggest source of coal in the world and our nitwit leaders have us buying windmills from China to power our economy.  This is just what industry has been begging for:  expensive and intermittent power.  Is it any wonder nobody is hiring?
    By the way, here is a pan of the Government Motors Volt by Consumer Reports:

    • 0 avatar

      X2, MK.

    • 0 avatar

      Coal combustion is also the best source of CO2 that there is.  That turns out to be a problem.

      The “environmental zealots” now running the country, in addition to encouraging wind (it’s not that expensive and it’s always windy somehwere) and solar (it does get sunny every day, especially in the desrt) have also endorsed nuclear power and either proposed or passed additional subsidies.  No takers.  There are two problems with nukes:

      – Long term storage of the waste.  For this, you can blame NIMBYs.  I’d be happy to propose storing it in your cellar, though.

      – Capital cost of constructing the plants.  For that reason, utilities won’t touch ’em with a ten foot pole.

      Additionally, since we’re willing to pollute groundwater to get it, gas is surprisingly cheap.  This discourages the use of alternatives.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      I agree that we need modern safe nuclear plants. Even France has them. The environmental zealots have their priorities off kilter, but what else is new?

    • 0 avatar

      Couple of quick questions, Sam:
      How many opperational commercial nuclear power plants does France have?
      How many opperational commercial nuclear power plants does the USA have?

  • avatar

    Sam P I personally would not believe much of what the government says about anything, and next to nothing if the government agency is the EPA.
    Those hydro electric dams are a generation old, and no new ones are on the drawing board. Even some of the existing ones are being considered for demolition, to resurrect the original spawning grounds for fish. Most of the people aggitating for this are, you guessed it, so called alternative energy types, driving Pious’s. Dont confuse them with logic.

  • avatar

    Zipcar will charge you a penalty if the next driver reports that you returned the car with less than a quarter tank.  With the telemetry in the Leaf, they can tell remotely without waiting for it to be reported.

  • avatar

    Thanks for taking pictures up by the Rose Garden – nothing like starting the day with a bout of homesickness. <sniff>
    Looks like the plug-in version makes a lot of sense for city dwellers, and still has a “range anxiety” safety net.  Like you said, evolution.  I’m also interested in the long-term life of the battery pack and how much it’s really going to cost to replace them when it’s time.  Is this maybe an opportunity for aftermarket suppliers to undercut Toyota’s pricing?

  • avatar
    M 1

    I predict a booming flea-market black market for stolen charging adapters, cables, etc.

  • avatar

    Lipstick on a pig edition. The true Walmart of electric plug cars minimalist interior and all.

  • avatar
    Mike Kelley

    The US government spent billions on the Yucca Mountain storage area, but Obama canceled it as soon as he took office as per the Sierra Club’s wishes.  The environmentalists are against any practical energy source, including nuclear, coal, and gas.
    Wind power is not a reasonably priced alternative to coal or even gas, and it never performs as advertised: It is also very unreliable, as they found out in Europe and England this winter when it got really cold there.  The wind died, and they had to buy power from the Scandinavians.

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