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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?

Ever since the Prius hybrid arrived in Canada in 2000, Toyota has had to explain how it works: it uses electricity but doesn?t plug into the wall.

Now it can. New for 2012, the Prius Plug-In is basically a regular Prius hatchback with a cord.

The no-plug Prius is still available, along with the equally no-plug Prius V wagon and smaller Prius C. That?s good news for hybrid buyers ? while the Plug-In has some cool technology, it?s not one-size-fits-all, and its benefits depend on several factors.

Like the regular Prius, it contains a 1.8 L gasoline engine and hybrid-electric system, but with a lithium-ion battery pack in place of the Prius? nickel-hydride version. When you plug it in, it stores a charge to run on its battery alone, at speeds of up to 100 km/h.

Charging takes about three hours on regular household current (a 240-volt outlet cuts that in half). When the stored charge depletes, it automatically switches to regular hybrid operation, using a combination of its gasoline engine and battery. As with a regular hybrid, the battery is then recharged via regenerative braking and the engine.

Toyota says the stored charge can cover as much as 22 kilometres, but I only got a little over 18 km each time.

The Plug-In starts at $35,700, but its electric-only ability qualifies it for a $5,000 Ontario rebate. The Technology model, which adds a premium stereo, adaptive cruise control, LED headlamps, pre-collision system and leather seats, is $40,935.

It?s hard to compare it to the regular Prius, which starts at $25,995 and has no rebates, because the Plug-In comes with standard features the base Prius doesn?t have, including navigation, heated seats, satellite radio, and auto-dimming mirror. The closest-equipped Prius is $29,245, so that?s where I did my math.

On regular hybrid operation, the Prius and Plug-In are rated the same: 3.7 city/4.0 hwy. L/100 km. On electricity alone, the Plug-In is 2.0 city/1.9 hwy. Le/100 km (Litres Equivalent, which is Natural Resources? estimate of what an electric vehicle would use in gasoline).

On each day?s drive, the display indicated I offset 0.8 litres of fuel while in electric mode. That saved me about a dollar a day in gas, while three hours of off-peak charging cost me about 18 cents. If those prices held steady, that?s $299 per year saved on the rebated Plug-In versus its similarly equipped sibling, and just under five years to make up the difference in the Plug-In?s price.

Of course, there are many other factors: where and how you drive, the price of gas and hydro, how faithfully you plug it in and, for some, the satisfaction of electric-only driving ? which is why this is never an exact science.

I drove a prototype Prius Plug-In a couple of years ago, and noted a few changes from that one. Although the prototype always started on the stored charge, the production model lets you decide when you want to run in electric-only mode. You can save it for the portion of your drive where it will do the most good.

In conventional hybrid mode, the Plug-In continually charges its battery through regenerative braking and the gas engine. Like the regular Prius, it can run on electricity alone at lower speeds. If you drive a hybrid on its battery for too long, such as when creeping along in heavy traffic, the gas engine comes on to charge it back up. The Plug-In reserves a bit of its stored electricity so when it does go into regular hybrid mode, the engine doesn?t have to run excessively to recharge it

And even if you push the electric-only button, the gasoline engine may still come on ? such as when you first start the car in cooler weather to warm everything up, or when you accelerate hard and need extra power until your speed levels out.

The 22-km range is short, but about 80 per cent of Canadians commute 25 km or less. There?s also a trade-off any time you add electricity. More range means a bigger battery that takes longer to charge. Toyota says it balanced the range with the battery?s cost and weight, and with a relatively quick charge time that doesn?t need a special home charger installed. (A small lock can be inserted in the cord?s release button to prevent thieves from walking off with it.)

The Prius Plug-In works differently than the Chevrolet Volt, which is $41,545 before its $8,231 rebate. When the Volt?s estimated 40- to 80-km charge runs out, its gasoline engine generates more electricity, but at 6.4 L/100 km.

Available later this year, Ford?s C-Max Energi ($36,999 before a $5,808 rebate) works the same as the Prius. Ford says it will have triple the range and a higher top speed on electricity only, although it will take longer to charge. Honda will also offer a plug-in hybrid version of its Accord next year.

Pure electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, use their batteries only, and stop running once the stored charge depletes.

Whether the Prius Plug-In is practical or pointless depends on the driver. If you don?t plug it in, you?re essentially paying more for a regular Prius. If you can maximize your battery-only driving, you?ll see the payback much faster.

As with any alternative vehicle, it?s a choice that?s wrong for some and right for others, and it?s up to each driver to do the math.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In

PRICE (before rebate): $35,700 base; $40,935 as-tested

ENGINE: 1.8 L four-cylinder with hybrid system

POWER/TOURQUE: 98 hp/105 lb.-ft., 134 hp gas/electric combined

FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100km: 3.7 city/4.0 hwy. (gas); 2.0 city/1.9 hwy. (electric equivalent); 3.7 (combined driving as-tested)

COMPETITION: Chevrolet Volt, Ford C-Max Energi, regular Prius

WHAT?S BEST: Seamless gas/electric operation; short recharge time; ability to choose when to run on battery.

WHAT?S WORST: No cheaper base model; the downtown condo dwellers most likely to benefit may not have a plug handy.

WHAT?S INTERESTING: It qualifies for Ontario?s Green Vehicle licence plate for HOV-lane perks.

The vehicle tested by freelance writer Jil McIntosh was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?
  • 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In: To plug or not to plug?

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