When Toyota launched the Prius, precious few drivers knew what a hybrid car was. Twenty-one years later, many will be wondering whether they should join more than 10 million drivers who have bought a new Toyota hybrid.
Toyota has led the field in developing hybrid-powered cars. The Prius accounts for more than four million of those. And the most efficient version of the range is the plug-in hybrid. So those who want to ditch a diesel, or perhaps go a step further than their current Prius hybrid, may find this car is the answer to their needs – if not dreams.
It returns a claimed 235mpg, versus 83mpg for the regular Prius, although the battery will need to be recharged from the mains every 30 miles to stand any chance of getting anywhere near such an attention-grabbing figure.
Its potential efficiency doesn’t come cheap, though. A Prius plug-in hybrid costs from £29,195, after a government grant of £2,500 is applied. Whereas the most affordable Prius, with the self-powered hybrid system, starts at £24,245, so private buyers will need to decide whether the potential fuel savings are worthwhile.
For company car drivers, however, the benefit-in-kind tax savings can be substantial, if switching from a diesel-powered car with a similar value.
The question is, can the Prius plug-in hybrid amount to more than just a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet?
Like a regular Prius, this version has a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine that works independently of or together with a battery-powered electric motor. However, with the plug-in hybrid model, the battery is larger and more powerful, at 8.8kWh, and has had to grow physically as a result, to 145 litres – something drivers will notice from the very shallow boot and the fitment of only four seats.
The battery powers two electric motors, and an automatic gearbox similar to a continuously variable transmission seamlessly blends the shove of the engine and electric motors together and drives the front wheels.
The battery has a potential range of just over 30 miles, and if you want to keep away from petrol stations, it needs to be charged from a mains electricity supply, a process that takes just over three hours using a household plug socket. At risk of stating the obvious, that means anyone buying a car like this should have access to an outdoor power socket or garage with a power supply.
There are two trim levels available: Business Edition Plus and Excel. The former is available with a solar roof, a nifty gadget that adds up to three miles of charge a day to the battery. But realistically it’s only for eco-minded bragging rights, as it costs £1,500 – and even my man-maths knows that’s a lot of money for such a small benefit.
There’s a more meaningful innovation in this second generation Prius plug-in hybrid. It a features a new, gas-injection heat pump – said to be more efficient than engine heating or electric heaters - that powers the climate control. It can warm the cabin without the engine running, even when outside temperatures are at -10°C, minimising the impact on fuel consumption and the battery charge.
And although few drivers would have expected a Prius to have much in common with an exotic Ferrari or McLaren sports car, if you open the boot you’ll see one similarity: the tailgate is made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, said to be 40 per cent lighter than the regular car’s aluminium and steel affair. Toyota engineers had to do this because the bigger battery means the car’s weight is close to the maximum the Prius platform is designed to carry.
First, some good news for anyone unfamiliar with a plug-in hybrid: you simply slip the automatic gearbox into ‘Drive’, release the handbrake and go. The car will take care of the rest.
By default, the Prius plug-in hybrid runs on battery power alone, in what’s called EV (electric vehicle) mode. It is surprisingly brisk and far from the milkfloat experience some may have expected. And, of course, it is delightfully quiet, a trait that may be reason enough for diesel drivers to buy a PHEV.
Thanks to the more powerful battery and dual motors, this car is happy being driven on battery power alone on main roads, and the petrol engine won’t lend a hand until you hit 84mph, or a different drive mode is selected or the car’s computers decide that the battery charge needs to be conserved.
If you did want to drive it like a normal hybrid, a press of a button on the dashboard switches to HV (hybrid vehicle) and the two power sources work in the sort of seamless harmony you’d expect of a company like Toyota. This can also be set to charge the battery using the petrol engine, which is far from efficient but could, on occasion, be useful – such as on a long journey with a city destination in mind.
For the ultimate in green driving, changing to EV City means the car runs on reduced electric power alone. And with all three, there’s the choice of Normal, Power or Eco settings.
During a week of driving, the car’s fuel economy ranged between 72mpg and 151mpg, with much of the fluctuation accounted for because I was sampling all the different driving modes. Keep the battery charged and you can expect to be at the higher end of that scale if your journeys are mostly below 30 miles.
At motorway speeds, the engine and gearbox occasionally whine away in the background, which can be unpleasant. Generally, however, it is jolly quiet, never gets confused and some drivers may find it interesting to achieve the optimum setting to suit their daily driving habits. However, what it is not in the slightest bit fun.
The Prius rides comfortably but you will never find yourself marvelling at how satisfying it feels to drive. It’s as if Toyota’s engineers agreed to erase ‘driving pleasure’ from their To Do list when developing the car.
In this respect, an Audi A3 e-tron or Volkswagen Golf GTE are more pleasurable to live with.
Prepare to be underwhelmed. Like the outside of the Prius, the interior is no work of art.
Everything fits together well enough, but the materials used are drab and dreary, the digital instrumentation resembles something from the days of Sega Rally and the sort of feelgood factor you’d get in an Audi A3 or VW Golf is sorely lacking.
That’s annoying, because Toyota can and should be doing better. And when you consider the wealth of information there is available to help monitor and improve on your driving performance, the digital displays should be better than they are.
There are other, practical issues that could prove significant for some drivers. With the Prius PHEV there are only four seats. Because of this, Toyota has fitted a centre console between the two back chairs, but this makes it ridiculously hard to buckle the belt of a childseat, because of such limited clearance.
Further more, headroom is pretty limited because the seat is sat over the battery. And the 360-litre boot is much smaller and shallower than that of the regular Prius.
There are better, more desirable plug-in hybrid cars on sale than the Prius plug-in hybrid. Its powertrain is efficient enough, the driving experience is mostly relaxing and pleasingly refined and the running costs could be advantageous for some motorists. But the other parts of this car – namely, its styling and interior, limited seating space and modest boot – are underwhelming.
1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, with 8.8kWh battery and dual electric motors
Continuously variable automatic transmission
|Electric range||30 miles|