Review: A plug for the Prius

By Bill Heald - ReminderNews
Feature Article - posted Thu., Apr. 14, 2011
- Contributed Photo

This week’s review auto is unusual, because you can’t go out and buy one just yet. It’s actually a step in the evolution of the Toyota Prius Hybrid sedan, which has been a true groundbreaking automobile all over the world.

The Prius is, of course, a gas-electric hybrid, meaning it runs on a conventional gasoline engine, or an electric motor, or both, all in the interest of reducing fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. With unleaded regular gas floating around $4 a gallon at this writing, the former is becoming a very big deal and Prius sales have been robust of late. In fact, Toyota just announced the sale of its one-millionth Prius in the U.S., and released the following statement: “Since it was introduced in the U.S. in 2000, Prius, when compared to the average car, has saved American consumers more than an estimated 881 million gallons of gas, $2.19 billion in fuel costs, and 12.4 million tons of CO2 emissions.”

Those are impressive numbers, and to fortify this thriftiness further, Toyota has developed a plug-in hybrid version called the PHV, for “Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle.” This car should be available at dealers about a year from now, but in the meantime, Toyota has put a limited number of Demonstration Vehicles in its press fleets, so journalists can share what the car will be like to live with.

The vehicle is basically a 2010 Prius sedan that, instead of having the usual nickel-metal hydride battery pack, has a lithium-ion battery array (related to the batteries found in portable devices like laptop computers), allowing for charging by outside sources such as your home electrical outlet. The idea here is simple: the Prius uses no gas while on full-electric propulsion, so if you can extend the time you run off the batteries alone, you save more fuel.

The Prius PHV we sampled was plugged into our house each night (regular 110 voltage) via a port in front of the driver’s door, and the battery pack was fully charged in about three hours. You can then drive up to about 13 miles without burning any gas, although in the winter the engine ran more often to help heat the cabin, so we only got around 8 miles in electric vehicle (EV) mode. After the batteries are mostly depleted, the PHV becomes a regular Prius and recharges the batteries through regenerative braking and engine input. Then it runs off the engine, electric motor, or both, just like the million other Prii (the plural for Prius) sedans on the American road. Overall, we averaged 56 MPG in mixed driving, charging up the car every night. Electricity costs amounted to under $4/week, or about the price of one gallon of gas.

The production version of this car will be available next year, as will the price. How this will stack up to the new Chevy Volt electric, with its on-board gas generator (which we’re testing in a few weeks) will remain to be seen, although either vehicle will go a long way towards easing the pain at the pump.

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