ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Toyota continues to expand its hybrid herd. Along with Toyota- and Lexus-brand hatchbacks and station wagons, luxury sedans and SUVs, the original Prius has gained a new model for 2012 — the Plug-In electric hatchback. Much like Chevrolet’s Volt, the Prius Plug-In isn’t a fully electric vehicle. Basically it’s a regular Prius hybrid with the addition of recharge-at-home capability backed by a lithium-ion battery pack that provides expanded storage capacity and efficiency compared to the nickel-metal hydride array found the standard Prius. Toyota points out a relatively fast recharge time — about three hours on a standard, 120-volt home outlet, or about half that time on a larger, 240-volt outlet like those used for electric clothes dryers (a 24-foot charging cable is included). The Volt bests the Prius Plug-In in two categories: electric-only range and highway speed. While the Volt can exceed 40 miles on battery-only power, the Prius is limited to around 15 miles before the battery pack’s charge is depleted and the gasoline engine kicks in. And the Prius is limited to 62 mph in all-electric mode while the Volt can travel at higher speeds on batteries only. People buy hybrids for different reasons, but probably the No. 1 reason is their exceptional fuel economy. And with the Plug-In, given the right combination of travel requirements, an owner could conceivably never have to buy gasoline. How? Just limit your travel to 15 miles or less before recharging. Anything much beyond that and it’s back to burning dinosaur drippings. Driving the Plug-In feels pretty much like the standard hybrid version. That means relatively pedestrian acceleration, modest handling limits and decent braking power. Electronic steering is numb-feeling but ultimately precise enough.
The upgraded Advanced model like our tester features a number of trim and convenience bits on top of the Base model’s already lengthy list of standard features. But the interior still comes across as an exercise in cost-cutting with rather low-rent materials formed into a Futurama styling scheme featuring overly busy, all-digital instrumentation under a centrally located binnacle.
Versatility gets top marks, though, with lots of cargo space under the hatch and generous legroom for backseat riders. And the seats are well-padded and quite comfortable. Driven leisurely, the Prius Plug-In is a perfectly decent, around-town conveyance. Even beyond the car’s electric range, fuel economy averages out to a stunning 50 miles per gallon. And on the highway, it’s pleasantly quiet and smooth. You’ll have to weigh the advantages of its limited fossil fuel-free range against the added cost for the Plug-In — ours bottom-lined at $40,510! — over the regular hybrid.