2012 Toyota Prius PHV (Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle) Review

Toyota evolves the Prius, adding a plug with a plan to bring emissions free driving to the masses

2012 Toyota Prius PHV (Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle) Review

Watching the auto industry reposition itself en masse can be an exciting proposition. When hybrids were hot, every manufacturer jumped into bed with another – or three or four, in some cases – to develop expensive technology with questionable returns, all in the hopes of looking ‘green’. Or not looking not-green.

FAST FACTS

1. The Prius PHV uses a larger and more powerful Lithium-Ion battery pack that allows for 12 miles of emissions free electric travel.

2. Power is rated at the same as the standard Prius with 134-hp, however, the added weight makes for a slower 11-second 0-60 mph time.

3. Charge time takes 3 hours with a conventional household plug and just 1.5 hours with a 220-volt charger.

4. Currently Toyota is testing 600 Prius PHV prototypes throughout the world with plans to send the car into production soon.

Now that electric vehicles are this year’s black, it’s the same song, different verse: does Tesla really know more about batteries and vehicle design than Toyota? Probably not, but why is the former now working on a battery-electric version of the latter’s RAV4 cute-ute? Especially since Toyota successfully offered its own RAV4 EV in the ‘90s? Probably because Tesla is white-hot in terms of public perception right now, while Toyota definitely needs some help.

So it’s no real surprise that Toyota is looking for other ways to maximize the investment on its hybrid range. Other than the Prius, the only other vehicle that’s sold in any real numbers is the RX 400h/450h. The LS, GS, HS hybrids have all tanked, while the Camry and Highlander hybrid take-up barely registers. But the Prius still has gold in its name. So why not build a car that uses the money-making Prius, but also shows the world that Toyota’s ready to play on this electric-vehicle stage too?

Cynical? Certainly. But every car company needs money to survive, and you have to lose a little to gain a lot.

PLUG-IN PRIUS STILL JUST A PROTOTYPE – FOR NOW

The result of Toyota’s brainstorm session is the Prius PHV, or plug-in hybrid vehicle. Like similar programs from other automakers, only a handful of cars will be built, and passed out to regional ‘partners’ like universities, utilities and industry heavies to use and abuse for a year. Toyota then takes the data, does whatever analysis it deems appropriate, then decides whether or not to expand the program the following year to include mom and pop buyers or to pull the plug completely.

Toyota has, however, made known its intentions to deliver a mainstream production model, possibly as early as next year. And with the Chevy Volt about ready to go on sale, you can be sure the Prius PHV is coming soon.

12-MILES OF EMISSIONS FREE DRIVING

The PHV retains everything that makes the Prius a good car, namely the solid construction, spacious cabin and generous features. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine still uses the Atkinson cycle tuned for greater fuel mileage, and the electric motor hasn’t gained any ponies either – the output is still 134 horsepower. What has changed is the battery – out with the old nickel metal hydride (NiMH) packs, and in with new lithium ion (Li-ion) ones. Not only do Li-ion batteries hold a greater charge for their size than NiMH, but Toyota made them larger too, all in an attempt to maximize the PHV’s electric-only range.

To accommodate the extra 400 pounds hanging over the back axle, Toyota stiffened the rear springs and reprogrammed the regenerative braking to accommodate for the increase. But even with the added capacity, the PHV only carries a 12-mile max range in electric-only mode with a maximum EV-only speed of 60 mph. Doesn’t sound like much, right?

Well, it all depends on what type of driving you do. At predominantly highway speeds the car’s EV aspect is irrelevant, while driving around town and making use of those 12 electric miles you can easily see well over 50-mpg and as high as 70 mpg on short trips.

JUST A THREE-HOUR CHARGE TIME

Impressively, the PHV recharges in only three hours using a standard 110 volt plug – or half that by using a special 220-volt charger – so finding a plug near work would double that range. However, unlike pure electrics like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, the Prius PHV carries its own generator – it still functions as a hybrid, meaning no ‘range anxiety’ because unless you run out of gasoline, you’re still moving.

To help drivers keep track, Toyota changed the gauges slightly to include an EV-range indicator. There’s also a pictogram depicting how much of your driving history was done in EV or regular hybrid mode. Apart from the charge port in the front fender, a couple ‘plug-in’ badges, and a slightly higher trunk floor, the PHV is pure Prius, for better or worse.

The extra weight is not immediately apparent when behind the wheel – it would take a dedicated back-to-back with a regular Prius to tell the difference. So people who love the Prius will love the PHV. On our test route, there were plenty of hills to tackle, some highway sections where the PHV could stretch its legs, along with some urban stop-and-go stuff where Toyota’s hybrid already excels. The electric motor is quite torquey, making the car feel faster than its 11 second 0-60 mph time (compared to 9.8 seconds for the current Prius). It’s virtually silent when driving, which is expected. Toyota is known for making its vehicles into sensory-deprivation tanks, requiring as little effort as possible from its drivers.

Anyone with a sporting bone in their body will probably dismiss the PHV outright, but that’s fine. Toyota’s not looking to please driving enthusiasts in the conventional sense. It hopes to hook environmental enthusiasts with a vehicle that’s better suited to the compromises that come with living and driving in places outside southern California.

Toyota is only building 600 of these third-gen PHVs for the seven countries involved in the experiment, with 150 headed to the United States, and five to Canada. The plan is to have ‘regional programs’ in northern and southern California, Washington D.C., New York City, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while the Canadian units are touring the country at various ‘green’ expos and shows.

THE VERDICT

It’s hard to give a verdict on the Prius PHV besides a conditional “sure, but how much does it cost?” While ‘filling’ up the battery only costs a few cents a day, until Toyota makes the decision whether or not to offer these to the general public, and figures out what the mark-up will be over a regular Prius, the PHV is little more than interesting dinner conversation.

Rumors have suggested Toyota will price the production model quite close to its non plug-in counterpart. If that’s the case it will be a compelling alternative to vehicles like the Volt. It may not get that car’s impressive figures, but it also won’t cost as nearly much. Plus, there’s no range anxiety, like with fully electric models like the Leaf.

That being said, we have to hand it to Toyota for taking the once revolutionary Prius and moving it into the evolutionary column, creating a vehicle that might not get the headlines, or the mpg numbers of cars like the Leaf or Volt, but which is (we hope) attainable to a much larger segment of the population.

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