EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 13, 2013

Prius Plug-in gives hybrids new energy

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — The Toyota Prius is a popular and successful car. In the dozen years since Prius arrived in America as a 2001 model, Toyota has sold more than one million as the vehicle has matured through three generations.

Unquestionably the Prius is here to stay. But as a hybrid car – half gasoline and half electric power – it still lacks the long, long heritage enjoyed by conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles.

Emmett Horgan, who has sold a lot of Prius hybrids as owner of Rockingham Toyota Scion Honda in Salem, N.H., still encounters drivers who don’t understand the hybrid-drive concept. Sure, the Prius enjoys a strong following of loyal fans. But new customers who come to Rockingham to inquire about the Prius usually require a lot of educating, he said.

Now we’re seeing a new turn in the development of hybrids, with the introduction of variants called plug-in hybrids. That makes this a good time for a little review. It starts with the electric part.

Hybrids are practical alternatives to battery-powered, all-electric cars. For ordinary consumers, the big advantage of battery-driven electrics is economy. Electricity costs money, same as gasoline. But you’ll pay less money to purchase the electricity needed to drive a mile than you would pay to buy the gasoline needed to move the same size car the same distance. That’s just how the physics works out.

But the big disadvantage of electric cars remains the same today as it has always been: driving range. In the smattering of modern, all-electric autos currently available, after less than 100 miles – often much less – you have to park the car and plug it in for a recharge that might take eight or 10 hours. And if you drive many hills, if you do nighttime runs when headlights are needed or if you use some power-hungry accessories, especially the heater (and try driving your car without using its heater this month), your actual driving range might fall to under 50 miles.

And all-electric cars must be small and lightweight to get even that much range. With their scaled-down size, you lose the flexibility to haul around large groups or big stuff, same as you lose the ability to drive the distances you want when you want. Electric cars are limiting. They don’t deliver the personal freedom we seek from transportation.

That brings us to the genius behind hybrid cars. Hybrids are part electric, so you get some of the economy of electric drive. But they’re also part gasoline, so you never have to worry about getting stranded or waiting through a painfully long plug-in period. The gas engine in a hybrid car works side-by-side with the electric motor to help turn the wheels. But most importantly, it also turns a generator that recharges the batteries that power the electric motor. You never have to plug in a hybrid.

Sure, you still have to purchase gasoline. But you buy a lot less of it. The Toyota Prius has a U.S. government fuel-economy rating of 51 miles per gallon in city driving, and 48 mpg on the highway.

Now come plug-in hybrids. The 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in, introduced almost one year ago as an addition to the Prius line, comes with an electrical cord that plugs into a socket on the right rear fender. The other end of the cord sticks into a regular wall outlet, probably in your garage, and preferably an outlet that an electrician wired as a 15-ampere circuit to be used for car-charging alone (a shared circuit might overload).

The genius behind a plug-in hybrid is the same as the genius behind a conventional hybrid: You never have to plug in the car. A plug-in hybrid can run forever with the gasoline engine recharging its batteries.

But you can choose to plug it in. That would be at a time and place that’s convenient, like overnight in your garage. While you slept, your plug-in hybrid would top off its batteries, getting a full battery charge so that, the next day, it would have to rely on the gasoline engine less.

So a plug-in hybrid gives you all the never-stranded assurity of a regular hybrid, but it also gets you closer to an all-electric vehicle because it lets you pull at least some of its electricity from the power grid, rather than generate it all on-board.

In the case of the Prius Plug-in, the government rates its regular fuel economy – if you run it as a regular hybrid – the same as a standard Prius. But if you use a wall outlet, the 2013 Prius Plug-in earns a miles-per-gallon-equivalent rating of 95. Abbreviated mpg-e, miles-per-gallon-equivalent is the government’s attempt to calculate how far the car would go per gallon if it used gasoline alone.

What’s more, if you do plug it in, and if you make only short trips, you can even run the Prius Plug-in like a purely electric car. Toyota advertises that the model can travel for distances up to 15 miles, at speeds up to 62 mph on battery power alone. No gas engine needed. When you plug it in again to replenish the batteries, the new Prius version will become fully charged in two-and-a-half to three hours (or in 90 minutes if use a high-capacity, 240-volt outlet, like a the one for a clothes drier).

At Rockingham Toyota in Salem, general sales manager Marc Smith reports that drivers are still only learning about the plug-in option.

“It’s still building awareness,” he said. Although the model is selling at a good clip, currently most go to buyers who come looking for a regular Prius, but learn about the plug-in version at the dealership, Smith explained.

The list price for a Prius Plug-in runs higher than the rate for a conventional Prius, due to the extra equipment added to adapt the car for wall-plug charging and extended all-electric range. A standard version Prius Plug-in starts at a list price of $32,760, while a premium model lists at $40,285. But right now Toyota is offering free financing and cash-back deals to make prices more comparable to those of regular Prius models, Smith said. Current reductions run to $4,000 for a standard Prius Plug-in, and $5,000 for a premium version.

It’s working to introduce more people to the plug-in concept, Smith said.

“I’m finding that the people buying them are bringing other people back in to buy one,” he explained.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, mid-size hybrid liftback Price range: $32,760 to $40,285 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 15 years/150,000 miles hybrid component warranty (in Mass.); 5 years/unlimited miles rust warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance Engine: 1.8-liter I4 with parallel electric motor Power: 134 combined system horsepower Transmission: Continuously variable automatic Fuel economy: 51 mpg city; 48 mpg highway; 95 mpg-e Wheelbase: 106 inches Length: 176 inches Width: 69 inches Height: 59 inches Weight: 3,165 pounds Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons Turning circle: 34.2 ft.-30-