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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in: Pushing the hybrid boundries

How much is an electric cord worth to you?
by: Courtesy of Toyota Motors The PLUG-IN HYBRID decal is not mandatory, unless you want  
to flaunt your green cred.

Spending time with an early version of the 2012 Prius Plug-in offers lesson in the potential of electric vehicles and the limitations of the current public charging station infrastructure.

Prius is the best-known and highest-mileage hybrid in the world. By switching power between a small gas engine and an electric motor, it can deliver 50 or more miles a gallon, depending on how it's driven. The new Plug-in version has a larger on-board battery pack that propels the car for the first 15 or so miles on electricity alone when fully charged. After that it drives like a conventional Prius.

Fifteen miles may not sound like much, but over a little more than a week of test driving, I found it was enough for me to travel from home to work - where I could recharge it again. So if I only drove from home to work and back every day, I wouldn't use any gasoline. Not a drop.

Issues arose if I had to drive someplace else during the day, however, and that happened frequently. Then I needed to find a public charging station to maximize my mileage. I was never stranded anywhere because the Prius Plug-in always switched to conventional hybrid power when the initial charge ran low. But finding and using public charging stations was challenging.

For starters, there simply aren't very many of them. Although the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a system of public charging stations, relatively few have been installed so far. Having written about EVs for years, I know where most of them in my area are location. But using them was another thing.

The first time I plugged into a public charging station, a warning light came on the dash that said 'Check Hybrid System.' Not knowing what this meant, I called my contact with Toyota, who didn't know either. So Toyota took the car back to make sure it wasn't damaged. Turns out it was just a computer software glitch and they simply turned off the light. But I didn't get the car back for more than a month.

The next time I tried to use a public charging station, it required a card that I didn't have. Although the station was part of the federally-funded system, users must sign up in advance and be issued a card that allows them to be billed for the power they use. If I owned an EV, I'd undoubtedly sign up for the service. But my test car didn't come with a card.

The next time I tried to use a public charging station, it was broken. At the next station I tried, a Mercedes owner was parked in the space reserved for EVs, talking on a cell phone. He left when I confronted him and I was able to fully recharge the car during an appointment.

The next day, I fully recharged the car at a different station with no problems. But when I used it again the next morning, the 'Check Hybrid System' light came on again, even though the same station worked fine the previous day.

This time my Toyota contact decided to gamble and I kept driving the car. It seemed to recharge without trouble at home twice after that, then the warning light turned itself off. I drove it two more days after that, always recharging it either at home or work without any problems. Although the batteries wore down when I ran errands, I wasn't near any public charging stations those times.

In the end, I spent more time driving the Prius Plug-in on hybrid power than electricity, but the electricity only cost a few cents compared to the $3.50-plus per gallon I paid for gas. Except for being a little bit quieter, car felt the same in both modes. The gas engine shuddered slightly when it came on during the switch-over, which is what happens in the conventional hybid mode, too.

I did find that trying to push the electric range was a fun game, though. Because the batteries are recharged when the car slows or brakes - called regenerative braking - you can extend the range going downhill. Based on the read-out on the dash, I gained more than a mile of electric power going down a steep hill on the way to work. After awhile, I began looking forward to hills to see how far I could go before the batteries ran down enough to switch to conventional hybrid power.

So is the Prius Plug-in a practical alternative for the environmentally-minded? There are several things to consider first, beginning with the price, which starts at just under $33,000. That's around $9,000 more than a base conventional Prius, a premium that reflects its research and development costs, plus the relatively low initial production numbers. Whether a buyer ever makes up that difference depends on the price of gas and how much it is driven solely on electric power.

The Prius Plug-in is less expensive than the Chevy Volt, its most obvious competitor. The Volt begins at just under $40,000 new. Current federal tax credits reduce the difference from around $7,000 to about $2,000, however. The Volt qualifies for the full $7,500 credit while the Prius Plug-in only gets around one-third of that because of its lower battery capacity, which is what the credit is based on.

A fully-charged Volt can go around 35 miles on electricity before an on-board, gas-powered generator kicks on to keep going. The generator does not run the electric motor directly but charges the batteries enough to keep it running, which is why Chevy called the Volt an extended-range electric and not a hybrid. Both the Volt and Prius Plug-in can travel unlimited distances on gas, eliminating the fear of being stuck somewhere when the batteries run low.

So is the Volt's greater electric-only range enough to make it a better deal? Consider this: once they switch to gas-only operation, the Prius gets better mileage than the Volt - around 49 mpg on regular compared to about 35 mpg on premium.

And then there's the issue of charging time. Because the additional battery capacity in the Prius Plug-in is so relatively limited, I was able to fully recharge it in just a few hours using a 110-volt outlet. That's a very reasonable charging time compared to the Volt, which can take up to 12 hours to fully recharge from a 110-volt outlet. To avoid that, owners need to install a 240-volt charging station in their homes. That cuts the recharging time in half, but can also add thousands of dollars to the price. Although the Prius Plug-in can be fully recharged in around an hour at a 240-volt charger, it is not necessary to install one at home.

The truth is, both the Prius Plug-in and Chevy Volt are early plug-in vehicles. Both companies expect breakthroughs in battery technologies to increase electric-only driving ranges while reducing both prices and charging times. How long that takes remain to be seen, of course. In the meantime, the research continues.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 Plug-In Prius.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Midsize car.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback.

• Engines: 1.8-liter inline four cylinder engine (98 hp) mated to an electric motor (80 hp) for an effective combined 134 hp.

• Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 87 miles per gallon equivilent in EV mode; 49 mpg in hybrid mode.

• Prices: Starting around $33,000.