A good urban EV, but is the bigger-batteried Prius really the PHEV of the future?
Two decades after it launched the first Prius, Toyota finds itself far from alone on the hybrid stage. It’s time to put another game-changer out there, and here it is: the Prius Plug-in.
But is it, though? There’s no doubting the cleverness of options like a solar panel roof that can give the battery a 90% charge in just over a week, and a new gas-injection heat pump air conditioning system and a battery warming system, both of which boost its electric-only range and efficiency. In addition Toyota says that its first ever ‘dual motor’ hybrid powertrain delivers a big leap in real-world performance and driveability.
Toyota Prius Plug-in
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder,petrol with dual-motor hybrid assist
Torque: not specified
Top speed: 101mph
CO2/tax band: 22g/km, 9%
What are the substantive changes between this Plug-In model and the regular fourth-generation Prius? Well, the 8.8kWh lithium ion battery it has under the boot floor instead of the standard Prius’ much smaller nickel-metal-hydride one now teams up with a state of the art high-voltage electrical system. A new one-way gear between the 1.8-litre petrol engine and the smaller of the Prius’ two hybrid drive motors lets both of those electric motors work together in ‘EV’ mode, hiking the electric-only power figure from 71bhp to a combined 102bhp.
In electric-only mode the new 352v lithium ion drive battery gives a top speed of 84mph and a claimed range of 39 miles, but it doesn’t boost peak ‘system’ power and performance that only comes when the main electric drive motor and piston engine run together, so the Prius Plug-in has the same 120bhp power and 0-62mph in 11.1sec accelerative capacity as the standard Prius, which is about 40% cheaper. The Plug-in’s price is comparable to BMW’s 249bhp 330e which does 0-62mph in 6.1sec and falls into the same benefit-in-kind tax band.
Still, the Prius Plug-in is rated at 22g/km of CO2 emissions and a daft-sounding official combined fuel economy of 283mpg.
Now that affordable 250-mile-range electric cars are arriving onto the market, plug-in hybrids really need to be two cars in one, combining an EV’s urban refinement, easy use and zero-emissions with the pace, range and driveability of a combustion-engined car on longer journeys. At the moment, most of them don’t provide that balance – and the Prius Plug-in is in that category.
The cabin is practically the same as the ordinary Prius’s apart from there now only being seating for two in the back. The new battery location makes the Plug-in’s boot smaller. On materials and practicality it falls behind Volkswagen’s similarly priced Passat GTE.
Toyota has tried to make the Prius Plug-in more comfy and refined than the ‘straight’ Prius, with extra insulation and more compliant suspension. You can just about notice the improvements but in isolation the Plug-in is still noisy on broken roads and the petrol engine still roars intrusively at more than half-throttle.
Electric-only performance is impressive and linear up to around 50mph. Brake operation is the usual EV mish-mash effect of regeneration and unexpected slowing forces, but the quiet urban efficiency is enjoyable until the claimed 39-mile electric range expires, which in our testing it repeatedly did in something closer to 25 miles. That’s still a good figure, but nothing special in the PHEV ranks.
When the lithium ion drive battery is empty you revert to the regular Prius’s drive characteristics, but with the extra burden of another 130kg weight. A-road handling is competent if detached, with no great reserves of grip from the 65-profile economy tyres when pressing on. Take things a little easier and you’ll get high 60mpg figures in hybrid mode, which is a lot better than most PHEVs, but only around 5mpg better than the normal Prius.
The Prius Plug-in might convince some motorists that Toyota has the best PHEV, but potential new customers for the brand might not be overly impressed.