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SOCKET TO 'EM


Toyota's Prius is best known as the nation's favourite hybrid car. It's also available in a plug-in version, as Andy Enright reports.

Ten Second Review

The plug-in version of the Toyota Prius uses a special rechargeable lithium-ion battery and can cover longer distances and reach higher speeds on electric power alone. Unlike all-electric vehicles, once the charge in the battery is used up, the car switches seamlessly to its hybrid system, so you won't have to worry about getting stuck at the roadside with no charge.

Background

Should you care to pop open the back of your phone, your laptop or your tablet PC, chances are it's running on a lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) has become the de facto standard for power in consumer devices. These batteries produce the same energy as the old nickel metal hydride cells but weigh approximately 20 -35 per cent less. Another reason Li-Ion batteries have become so popular is that they don't suffer from the "memory effect" in any way, so you don't have to drain them before recharging. They're also environmentally friendly because they don't contain toxic materials such as cadmium or mercury.

All this is important - at least to Toyota. One of the key criticisms levelled at conventional versions of the company's Prius petrol/electric hybrid is that its nickel metal hydride batteries don't actually jibe all that well with its green marketing. The latest Prius Plug-in swaps out those NiMHs for Li-Ions and is all the better for it. The downside? Well, we'll come to that in a bit.

Driving Experience

As many existing Prius owners will know, the car doesn't go very far on battery power alone. It is great fun to waft around in virtual silence, but you only need to have gone a couple of miles down the road before the petrol engine thrums smoothly into life. The Prius Plug-in hybrid retains the usual Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive powerplant, but because the batteries now pack a good deal more wallop, the car can travel for up to 12.5 miles on a single charge before the petrol engine rides to the rescue. Top speed in electric vehicle (EV) mode is now 62mph which means that you can travel major city arterial routes without any tailpipe emissions. The system can also be altered between ECO and POWER modes.

The extra 130kg that's been added to the kerb weight is, thankfully, mounted very low down in the vehicle, which helps keep an admirably low centre of gravity. The rest of the car's mechanicals are carried over from the normal Prius - so it has the same supple ride and heavily assisted steering. A computerised display encourages you to drive the car as economically as possible but the more competitive amongst you may find this more of a distraction than a help.

Design and Build

From the outside, it's doubtful you'd identify the Prius Plug-in as being any different to a normal model. It certainly doesn't proclaim its abilities. Plugging the power in is relatively simple and the batteries will take a full charge in just 90 minutes on a domestic 240V supply, which means that if you have a five mile commute into the office, you could potentially not need to put any fuel in the car again. In reality, the car will cycle fuel through the engine so that petrol doesn't sit in the tank for very long periods of time. A five metre cable is included to charge the Prius, although making this un-stealable is still apparently on Toyota's to-do list.

The cabin has come in for a refresh in recent times. The materials quality still isn't the best with a lot of scratchy hard plastics on the dashboard, but that's perhaps forgiveable in an electric vehicle that's trying to cut unnecessary weight. The seats are bigger than they used to be on this model and offer a wider range of adjustment. This underscores the Prius's impressive practicality. There's room for five and the boot is a decent size as well with an underfloor section that normally houses the charging cable. Should you do all your charging at home, there's enough space under there for a couple of backpacks. Seats that fold completely flat means the Prius Plug-in has a total luggage capacity of up to 1,120 litres.

Market and Model

There's only one version of this Hybrid Plug-in model offered for sale and it's rather well equipped. Equipment fitted as standard includes LED daytime running lights and headlights, the Toyota Touch and Go Plus system with touchscreen controls, satellite navigation, voice recognition, a rear-view camera and advanced Bluetooth for phone connection and audio streaming. You can also expect to find a DAB digital tuner, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, rain-sensing wipers and cruise control. On top of that, buyers get heated front seats, 15-inch alloy wheels with wheel caps and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. Options include black leather upholstery, rear privacy glass, a Protection Pack (rear parking sensors and boot liner) and a Style Pack (exterior chrome trim elements).

That's all well and good but Toyota wants around £33,000 for this car, quite a sum, even if it can be reduced by £5,000 thanks to Government grants. The resulting asking fee of around £28,000 puts it still almost £3,000 more than the erstwhile range-topping Prius T Spirit but some may well feel that it's worth the premium. It's fair to say that you'll probably have a very specific set of circumstances if you're to make the Prius Plug-in add up on the balance sheet.

Cost of Ownership

If you've had a cup of hot, sweet tea to recover from the asking price of the Prius Plug-in, the rest of this section may well help with its restorative effect. Like the Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera plug-in vehicles, quoting a miles per gallon figure for the Prius is largely academic, because in certain scenarios the figure is effectively infinite. Toyota has nevertheless jumped through the hoops of the NEDC test and quotes a figure of 108.6mpg for the Prius. The emissions figure of 49g/km is also open to a bit of debate, but it spells free road tax and no London congestion charge, so who's arguing?

For a wealthy buyer who maybe has a five mile commute into a London workplace, the Prius Plug-in is an absolute boon. Its refinement and restful nature will take the stress out of city driving and the fact that trips to fuel stations can be reduced to a bare minimum will be a major plus in terms of convenience. Does it work out cheaper to run than a normal Prius? Only in very extreme instances, but as a technological step forward it will appeal to early adopters.

Summary

Let's face it, as it stands right now, the Toyota Prius Plug-in isn't going to have mass appeal. That's why the company has instigated this relatively small-scale trial of 600 cars. Putting a toe in the water seems wise. The lithium-ion battery technology seems to work very well and points the way forward, but it's expensive at the moment and there aren't going to be too many customers who will want to pay over £27,000 for a Prius, even if it is fantastically economical.

Where the Prius runs into trouble is when compared to cars like the Chevrolet Volt or the Vauxhall Ampera. These so-called 'range extender' models have an even greater range on full electric power but aren't as economical as the Prius when the petrol powerplant is running. That places the Toyota in a very narrow window of desirability for potential customers. It's an impressive piece of technology but one with a very specific appeal.

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