2012 Toyota Prius PHV First Look, Review, and Road Test

By Jonathan Spira on 22 February 2011
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The Toyota Prius, first introduced in 1997 and now in its third generation, is the world’s standard bearer in hybrid-electric automobiles. It’s also the most fuel-efficient vehicle sold in the U.S. Toyota, however, does not rest on its laurels.

To this end, Toyota is moving beyond the basic hybrid-electric concept by introducing the 2012 Prius PHV, or “plug-in hybrid vehicle.” Before the 2012 models go on sale, Toyota is running a global demonstration program, delivering 600 Prius PHVs with new lithium-ion battery technology to key partners worldwide. In the U.S., Toyota is placing 150 Prius PHVs in the hands of various utilities and government agencies including San Diego Gas and Electric and Syracuse University.

It’s important to note that these vehicles are not prototypes but regular production vehicles, although there may be some changes by the time the PHV is generally available, including a newer battery pack. Toyota hopes to gather real-world data from deployment in these fleets, presumably to address such questions as to whether the 13-mile electric only mode is sufficient, not enough, or more than sufficient for real-world driving.

We recently had a chance to spend a week with a Blue Mica Metallic Prius PHV and there is no question that Toyota has upped the ante in the fuel economy race.

One of the first things one notices about the PHV is the large door in the left front fender where the connector resides (it has a fairly large icon of a plug on it, perhaps to make it clear that one should mistake it for the gas tank, although the power plug resembles a pump nozzle). Other differences are minor. The mirrors, door handles, and tailgate are painted silver, and there are “Plug-In Hybrid” nameplates on the doors. Inside, the PHV has a few additional display modes and the cargo floor is slightly higher to accommodate the PHV’s larger battery pack.

The battery, of course, is key. Instead of the Prius’ nickel-metal hydride battery pack, the PHV comes with a heavier and more costly 3.6 V lithium-ion pack. The new battery allows owners to charge the battery directly from a household electrical outlet (110 V) in three hours (using a 220 V outlet takes 90 minutes). It is also able to withstand the large swings that charge-depleting operation (i.e. large swings in charge/discharge) that result from extended EV mode operation. The lithium-ion batteries also have a higher energy density, which means that you can use more of its rated capacity than with nickel-metal hydride batteries.

While I’ve charged numerous electronic devices ranging from notebooks to mobile phones, I had never charged a car before. It was, however, a non-event and ultimately didn’t require much more effort than what one would indeed do with one’s laptop. There’s even an indicator light on top of the dashboard that lets you know it’s charging.

Once charged, the Prius is capable of travelling 13 miles on batteries alone, which is a tremendous increase over its standard range. (Once the battery power has been depleted, the car defaults to its traditional hybrid-electric mode.)

If driven with care, the Prius PHV can reach 62 mph (100 km/h) on electricity alone. I found this to be somewhat tricky as I tend to have a lead foot when it comes to the accelerator pedal. As a result, the gas engine tended to cycle on consistently before 62 mph.

Unfortunately, even my lead foot doesn’t help with acceleration. The Prius PHV moves from 0-60 mph in 11.3 seconds, compared to the standard model’s 9.8 seconds. But the Prius has never been about raw speed. The Prius has always been all about being economical and it does that very well.

In terms of mileage, it’s clear that the Prius PHV excels here and it’s equally clear why the EPA is having trouble coming up with a fuel economy rating system that makes sense.

Click here to continue to Page 2 – Driving the Plug-in Prius

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