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2014 Toyota Prius PHV: To plug in or not to plug in?

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At last! After making us wait for months, Toyota has finally come out with its plug-in hybrid. Some of you may recall that last year I tested the prototype of this hybrid model, whose battery can be recharged by simply plugging into an electrical outlet. The experience won me over, even though the vehicle I tested had suffered a series of abuses by my fellow journalists and struggled to keep up.

Now, the definitive Prius PHV is finally available for sale, and I have just had the chance to test the production model. I’m pleased to report that the vehicle’s mechanics have been fine-tuned. Gone are the worrisome body noises, and there are no random warning lights flashing on the dashboard. In fact, the car rose to the occasion consistently during the week-long trial.

One thing, though: Seen from the outside, or even within the cabin, this model is hard to tell apart from the regular Prius, which is still for sale.  The only telltale signs are the “Plug In” logos, the little door over the plug-in outlet, and a few other little details. But now that we’re on the topic, what is the mechanical difference between the Prius PHV and the regular Prius?

All about the battery
Both cars feature an 80-hp electric motor and a 98-hp 1.8-litre combustion engine, for a combined output of 134 horsepower. These are paired with a continually variable transmission. So, the only difference with the PHV is its battery pack. The plug-in version uses 4.4-kWh lithium-ion battery, whereas the regular hybrid comes with a nickel-metal hydride battery which, at 1.3 kWh, is nearly three times less powerful. Even though the PHV battery is both heavier and more powerful, but it’s about the same size as its counterpart, meaning it can also fit under the floor of the trunk. When you include the reinforcements, this option increases the vehicle’s weight by 45 kg, plus another 10 kg for its charger. Everything else is essentially the same.

Take it or leave it
I’ve never really been a fan of the Prius’ dashboard. It’s neither elegant nor practical. But every time I share my opinion with a Prius owner, I get that “How dare you!” look from them. To be fair, no one can deny that it’s made with hard, textured plastics that simply don’t live up to the vehicle’s cutting-edge aspirations.  Plus, the decision to stick the main indicator gauge right in the middle of the dashboard has long been controversial. Personally, I manage just fine with this configuration and I even had fun checking out the different charts that summarize the engine management information, the monthly fuel consumption and plenty of other stats of that nature. Of course, this can be distracting in traffic.    

The gearbox is controlled via a small lever located on the lower part of the dashboard’s mid-section. It’s very easy to handle, but if you look for the “P” position – as I did, time and again, during the first few days of my test drive – you aren’t going to find it. To put the car in “Park,” you have to push the “P” button instead.

Every other aspect of the car is pretty much the same as on the regular Prius. The heating and radio controls are intuitive and easy to use. The front seats are cruelly lacking in side bolstering and the thigh support could be better, too. The rear seat bench is quite low, which means taller folks will find their knees poking up by their ears. Fortunately, this is a hatchback, so you can compensate for the shallow trunk by lowering the rear seat backs if you need more cargo space. Last note: the fit and trim come up a little short for the brand and price range.
Yes, it’s electric, but . . .

The advantage of the PHV is that you just have to plug the car in to recharge its battery. In theory, this battery’s range is 25 km in all-electric mode, when it is fully charged. That’s much better than the conventional Prius, which only does a few dozen metres in electric mode before the gas engine kicks in. Thus, you can cover more ground in 100% electric mode with the rechargeable model. But here’s the thing: if you want the full 25 km, you have to drive very delicately, caressing the accelerator pedal, lest you drain the battery too quickly. One false move (like an aggressive acceleration) or one small obstacle (like a hill) is enough to eat away at the battery’s charge level and trigger the combustion engine. The transition is so transparent, however, that it’s actually hard to know whether you’re driving in all-electric or hybrid mode. Personally, during a daytime test, I managed to cover 18 kilometres before the gas engine intervened. But I had to be so gentle with the pedal that it really wasn’t a very realistic driving style. In comparison, the Chevrolet Volt offers up to 60 km of range in optimal driving conditions. That said, the Toyota recharges more quickly. The Japanese automaker claims that its combined fuel consumption is 3.1 L/100 km. I got 4.8 L/100 km with normal driving.

The main advantage of this car is the significant reduction in emissions and impressive fuel economy. Other than that, it’s just okay. The Prius PHV’s handling is about average, braking is hesitant and the steering is not particularly precise. Then you have to factor in human laziness, as some owners, like me, will “forget” to charge their car when they get home. I never really regretted forgetting, though, as the next day I could still drive around in a hybrid that recharged itself by recovering energy lost through braking.
At the end of the day, extended-range or rechargeable vehicles are the best solution for the time being, as we wait for electric batteries to catch up to fuel tanks when it comes to range. The base trim PHV costs $9,000 more than the plainest Prius. This difference can’t be ignored, even if you compare the two fanciest trims of either car, which come in at $40,995 for the PHV and $34,184 for the regular Prius (both include the Technology package). For 2013, the Quebec government is offering a $4,607 incentive for the PHV, which closes the gap between the two models to a certain extent.

It’s up to you to decide whether the difference in price is justified or not.

Evaluation

Test model 2014 Toyota Prius
Trim level Plug-in Hybrid
Price range $35,700 - $40,995
Price as tested $40,995
Warranty (basic) 3 years / 36,000 km
Warranty (powertrain) 5 years / 100,000 km
Options Plug In version Technology package
Competitive models Honda Insight
Strong points
  • Low fuel consumption
  • Proven mechanics
  • Guaranteed reliability
  • Improved handling
Weak points
  • Soundproofing needs improvement
  • Mushy steering
  • Expensive
  • Seats lack side bolstering
  • Some controls are distracting

Editor's rating

Fuel consumption 4.5/5 Great for city folk
Value for price 4.0/5 Pricey compared to the regular Prius
Styling 3.5/5 She ain’t pretty, but she’s bright
Comfort 4.0/5 The seats are comfortable, but don’t offer much support
Performance 3.5/5 Just OK
Overall 3.5/5 You end up paying a lot for poor all-electric range
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