Plug-In Prius Test Drive

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The plug-in Prius — a hybrid which can be recharged via a standard power outlet and have more electric-only range — may be the next step in the evolution of green cars.

How does the Plug-In Prius drive? Just like the standard Toyota Prius, only quieter (thanks to more all-electric operation) and with even better gas mileage — 100 mpg or more in some situations.

If you’ve ever wondered if Prius owners plug in their hybrids to recharge them, you’re not alone. The truth is the batteries of a conventional Prius recharge from the engine and by capturing the kinetic energy of braking, which otherwise would be lost as heat. But Toyota is now testing a Prius model that you will be able to plug in to a standard 110-volt household outlet, which will allow you to take advantage of more all-electric driving. The automaker may begin selling the Plug-In Prius in 2012.

At the end of my 20-minute, 10-mile test drive of the plug-in model in San Diego highway and city traffic, the car’s information screen showed an average of 99.9 mpg (the highest it can display).

With the EV (electric vehicle) button pushed, it was easy to drive the car purely on electric drive, though the normal gasoline electric hybrid system will kick in if you’re aggressive with the accelerator (for those times when you need full power from both the gas engine and electric motor, such as for passing or emergency maneuvers). Computer programming allows the Plug-In Prius to reach 62 mph without engaging the gas engine. For short commutes and running errands, you could drive the Plug-In Prius without ever burning a drop of gasoline.

Whereas the current Prius uses nickel-metal hydride batteries (conventional for hybrids), the Plug-In Prius employs lighter and more powerful lithium-ion batteries. It’s true that these batteries will add a substantial premium to the initial price of the car, but they’re well worth it considering they’ll allow the car to travel about 13 miles on electric drive alone. When the battery is fully discharged, it will take about three hours to recharge.

So why can’t you buy a Plug-In Prius right now? Toyota still has a lot to learn about the technology, how these cars will be driven, and what consumers will expect. The first 500 cars are a test fleet to allow Toyota to closely monitor how they perform in real world conditions and make any necessary adjustments prior to mass distribution.

Considering that the current gasoline-electric hybrid Prius is the best in the business for gas mileage, the convenient plug-in version has the potential to raise the bar even higher.