Living With a Prius Plug-In Hybrid

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Though a consummate city car, the Prius Plug-in can easily transport happy dogs, up to five adults or even a couple of large coolers.
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The Prius Plug-in features advanced batteries and the option to recharge at home.
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No animals were harmed or seriously annoyed in these photos. In fact, they got treats.
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Yes, the added battery capacity has trimmed the size of the trunk, but there’s still a lot of room. On meat delivery days for his eastern Kansas ranch, Publisher and Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bryan Welch easily hauled two 120-quart coolers.
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The nimble, quiet Prius Plug-in is good at herding spooky sheep, as long as you steer clear of mud holes and other slick spots.
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We find the Toyota Prius Plug-in stylish, thrifty and so quiet we can sneak up on sheep.

I have a hip new friend. My friend is young, good-looking and fashionably frugal. He’s most comfortable in the big city but works tirelessly to protect nature and the environment. He travels on a tight budget and a tiny carbon footprint. Savvy about the latest technology, he’s totally plugged in.

At least right now he’s plugged in. In a couple of hours I’m going to unplug him and drive him home.

Throughout the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012, the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff has been testing a prototype of the 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in. Most of that time the new plug-in hybrid has been my main car. He’s been driven halfway across the country from Pennsylvania to Kansas, and then on expeditions across the Midwest and through the Ozarks. We’ve run countless errands together, delivered grass-fed meat from my farm to my customers, and gone back and forth to the airport about 50 times.

The nimble, quiet car is good at herding spooky sheep, as long as you steer clear of mud holes and other slick spots. For a demonstration, check out Herding Sheep in the Toyota Prius Plug-In.

But the bottom line on the Prius Plug-in is that he’s a quintessential city boy. On days when I’m running around town, I use no gasoline at all. I take a jaunt of 5 to 10 miles, then plug the car into my garage outlet. A few hours later, I run another errand. Unless I go well over a dozen miles or exceed 50 mph or so, the car remains a purely electric vehicle. Cool.

When you drain the batteries to about 20 percent of a total charge, the car automatically switches to regular hybrid mode and performs pretty much like a conventional Prius, which doesn’t use grid electricity.

Naturally, the automobile’s biggest attractions are its economic and environmental credentials. On my daily commute of about 70 miles, I typically used about 1 gallon of gasoline. That’s an average of 70 to 75 miles per gallon, every day, driving country roads between my home and the office. The only days I fell below those averages (to 55 to 60 mpg) were when the weather turned very cold, or when I rushed to work on the 75 mph Interstate (45 to 50 mpg).

We used Toyota’s rating of the car’s all-electric mileage at 99.9 mpge (miles per gallon equivalent). In electric mode the car is, after all, “burning” electricity. When we measured the amount of electricity necessary to recharge, it amounted to about 33 cents worth of power (3.3 kwh) at my house in Kansas — the cost of about one-tenth of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. Since the car goes about 14 miles on that charge, when I managed to stay in electric mode I was actually getting the economic equivalent of 140 mpg. Wow.

During inclement weather, the car turns on the gasoline engine to heat or cool its mechanisms and the passenger compartment. Between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit there’s relatively little of that adjustment going on. But on a 10-degree morning, the gasoline engine runs pretty much continuously and the fuel mileage is lower.

On city streets the Prius is great fun to drive. The car is sure-footed and exceptionally stable, probably due to the extra weight of the big lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk. And when you put it in “Power Mode” with a button on the dash, it’s a very responsive city runabout. The Prius is, in general, quicker than I expected. I particularly enjoyed out-accelerating big conventional vehicles at the traffic lights. “Eat my ions, sucker.”

When we tested its acceleration, we found it would do zero to 60 mph in around 11 seconds on a flat road — and it didn’t matter if the car was in Power or Eco Mode. Although the vehicle felt quicker in Power Mode, it didn’t go faster. The accelerator seems more responsive with the Power button pushed, but that was one of the few differences we noticed.

And the Prius wasn’t generally more efficient in Eco Mode. At 70 mph on a flat freeway we consistently got between 48 and 50 mpg no matter how we set the buttons. The car handled passing maneuvers and steep hills more smoothly in Power than Eco. Other than that, we didn’t find that the mode buttons created any measurable difference in performance. Around town with a fully charged battery, there also was no distinction between modes, except in the feel of the car. We actually managed to eke out more all-electric miles in Power Mode than we did in Eco Mode. With a depleted battery, our mileage tests yielded roughly equal mpge numbers.

Some Prius drivers claim they get better mileage when they drive aggressively, accelerating and decelerating rapidly. Others swear that they achieve their best results by driving conservatively. In general, we got the best results by using the electric motor as much as possible and coasting whenever possible. Because the car delivers about the same torque at any speed, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how aggressively you accelerate or decelerate, as long as you rely on the electric motor and give the regenerative braking system a chance to recharge the battery while you coast. The harder you brake, the faster the braking system charges the battery, up to a point. While braking generates power, you pass the point of diminishing returns when you brake too hard.

Coasting fast down an exit ramp, you can see the battery’s charge increasing, which is weirdly gratifying.

The Prius Plug-in still features a prominent video screen offering several different animations to show how the vehicle is performing in various driving conditions. We didn’t find this feature useful. Any driver who’s reasonably aware of the car’s operation will know when the car is running on electric power and when the gasoline engine kicks in. It’s obvious. All one really needs to track performance is a prominent fuel-consumption number, which the Prius screen only offers in the fine print.

Day in and day out, this Prius serves as pleasant, trustworthy transportation. Over the course of the six months we had it (for 10,000 miles) our car was bullet-proof dependable. Toyota continues to get the basics right. This Prius represents the cutting edge of automotive technology and it’s apparent that Toyota’s engineers made sure its components would operate consistently and reliably.

If you haven’t previously driven electric cars or automobiles with continuously variable transmissions, you may initially miss the sensation of shifting gears. Acceleration is strangely consistent. From a standing start it took us about three seconds to reach 20 mph; one additional second to get to 30; and from there up through 70 mph, each increment of 10 mph was achieved in two to three seconds.

The car is extremely quick between 20 and 30 mph, the perfect range in which to negotiate city traffic. We merged where we wished to merge. This urban cool cat is ready to take what he needs.

We particularly appreciated how roomy the car is. Yes, the added battery capacity has trimmed the size of the trunk, but there’s still a lot of room. Five adults ride comfortably. We proved that six skinny editors could squeeze in. The rear hatch offers better access than most small- to medium-sized SUVs. On meat deliveries I easily hauled two 120-quart coolers. (That’s enough cooler capacity for 376 cans of beer, in case you wondered, with room on top for guacamole and chips.)

The Prius Plug-in feels like a friendly, living thing. With the key in your pocket, you just walk up to the door, touch the handle (at which point it chirps a greeting), climb in, push a button and off you go. The car makes the conventional process of unlocking, relocking and cranking the ignition seem primitive and tedious, and conventional gear shifting sort of clunky.

The experience of operating an electric car can take the driver back to childhood, behind the wheel of a bumper car or a hot pink, electric Barbie Car. The plug-in’s quiet, seamless operation evokes a sense of play.

The Prius Plug-in and other Prii we have driven do have a few weaknesses. The open road is not their natural habitat. They are noisy at highway speeds and skittish in a crosswind. They achieve and maintain highway speeds but are not as sure-footed or comfortable there as similarly priced conventional competitors.

The most vexing problem with our plug-in prototype was the extremely poor rear visibility. If you are shopping for a Prius, pay the extra for the video camera that shows the area behind the car. Without it, you’ll be holding your breath every time you back out of a parking space.

The second most annoying hassle of the Prius Plug-in’s design is the necessity of toting an 8-pound cable around all the time. For some reason, rather than mounting the car’s power cable on a reel somewhere convenient — like within the front grill — they’ve provided a heavy, 20-foot cable that has to be plugged into the side of the car, then into a power socket. We want a power cord that mounts behind the grill. We should be able to pull it out with one hand — even when we’re tired after a long day at work.

On the other hand, we’re only talking about 10 seconds to pull out the cord and connect it to the wall socket. It’s an easy routine, like locking the doors or charging your cell phone. And the thrill of traveling around on electric power is addictive. On the few occasions when we forgot to plug the car in overnight, we were disappointed to find a conventional, 50-mpg Prius — which is what you get with this model when you don’t plug it in — waiting for us in the morning. Still not a bad transportation option.

In spite of a few slightly annoying quirks, we came to feel a lot of affection for our hip urban friend. We admire his value system. He’s good, in the most important ways.

Bryan Welch, Publisher and Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, is the author of Beautiful and Abundant. He ranches in eastern Kansas where he raises patient sheep and happy cattle.