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Automobiles

[REVIEW] 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

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To us automobile journalists, it is our job to be nitpicking the quality of the French stitched nappa leather or the subtleties of how a well a car communicates the feel of the road through one’s bottom. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it!

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So when faced with this, the Toyota Prius, a car whose sole purpose in life is to make transportation from A-to-B as efficient as possible, it’s hard to admit that I actually enjoyed many aspects of this ride.

Toyota has cleverly used gamefication in the Prius to mask the technology behind-the-scenes, and to keep the fuel mileage obsessed owners entertained enroute to the nearest Whole Foods market.

And for the week that I had the Prius PHV (Plug-in-Hybrid), I was that fuel consumption obsessed guy too.

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History

When Toyota released the first generation Prius 17 years ago, there were a lot of people who poo-poo’ed the very idea of a hybrid vehicle.

Since the introduction of the Prius in 1997 as the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle, Toyota has been at the forefront in helping shape the way people think about how automobiles are fueled.

With over three million Prius units having been sold worldwide, Toyota is having the last laugh now.

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In fact, Toyota Motor Corporation announced in September 2014 that its global hybrid sales surpassed the 7 million unit mark, firmly signifying the company’s commitment to hybrid technology. By 2020, Toyota plans to have a hybrid model in every segment of the market.

Today, the “Prius” brand name arguably remains the world’s premier eco-vehicle brand, having made great strides establishing consumer trust in hybrid technology.

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Indeed, the Prius has become the poster child of the green revolution and the unlikely choice for movie stars who wish to anonymously but yet obviously flash their eco credentials while jet-setting from one film set to another.

Today, with gas prices almost 2.5 times what they were when the Prius launched, the brand has now grown into its own family of vehicles with the third generation Prius being the current model sold today.

In order to expand its customer base, there is also the more compact Prius c (“c” for city), and the bigger Prius v (“v” for versatility).

Powertrain – More go-go juice than the regular Prius

While Toyota has excelled in adding hybrid variants to both their line-up, other manufacturers have beaten them to the punch when it comes to plug-in electrics and plug-in hybrids.

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Toyota’s newest addition to the Prius family hopes to remedy all of that. The Prius PHV (Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle) is here to offer extended electrical range to those who want the ability to charge from a socket.

There is not a whole heck of a lot to differentiate Prius PHV versus the standard Prius. Save for some interior and exterior badging and an extra charge door on the passenger rear side of the vehicle, you have the standard aerodynamic wedge-shaped Prius body shape.

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The main difference between the standard Prius and the Prius PHV lies within its battery, sight unseen.

From an engineering stand point, the standard Prius has a less energy dense nickel metal hybride battery with a capacity of 1.3 kWH.  The Prius Plug-in’s lithium-ion battery, in comparison, fits under the rear cargo floor and has a much greater capacity of 4.4kWh.

But more importantly, this battery can be fully recharged from depletion in just three hours on a standard 120 volt household outlet, and about half that time on 240 volt. According to Toyota, this gives the Prius PHV with the title of having the fastest recharging time of any plug-in vehicle on the market today.

What about the electric range?

Officially, the all-electric range varies between 16 to 25 kilometres on a full charge and at speeds up to 100 km/hr. All of this, of course, is dependant on various conditions mainly revolving how much of a lead foot you are, and whether your travel includes any hills.  Throw in an incline or two and the all-electric range can drop dramatically.

Regardless, this is a significant improvement over the regular Prius, which can only run in pure EV mode at parking lot speeds for short distances before the gas engine kicks in.  For many Canadians, it is actually possible to use the Prius PHV on a typical daily commute without consuming a single drop of gas.

In my daily 19 km route to and from work, I was consistently able to eek by on a full battery charge and a minimal amount of fossil fuel consumed when climbing a small hill towards the end of my journey.

While my commute was not quite zero emissions, my average fuel consumption on this route was an astoundingly low 0.7L/100 kms!

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Cycling through EV and hybrid modes, I easily got 700+ kilometres of range out of the 45 litres of fuel in the tank without even breaking a sweat.

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Driving Experience

The hybrid powertrain in the Prius works very seamlessly. It goes between electric power, gas power, regeneration, or combinations of both without the driver noticing much of what is going on.

Various displays by the digital speedometer or in the infotainment system are the main indicators of how the computer is shunting the power for maximum efficiency.

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I much preferred relying on the full-colour display graphics in the infotainment system versus the small green LED graphics in the multi-function display. Those were a much lower resolution and reminded me of a video game from the 1980’s.

The 1.8L Atkinson-cycle four cylinder engine is the fossil fuel part of the Toyota Synergy system. Admittedly, it does sound a bit gruff under hard acceleration or when climbing hills. But given that it rarely makes its presence known in most other driving conditions, it is a small price to pay for efficiency.

Total hybrid system output is a modest 134 horsepower, but the 80hp electric motor’s instantaneous torque makes the Prius feel peppy enough in most traffic conditions.

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After a lot of experimenting, I found that the best way to make use of the Prius PHV’s extended electric range was to switch to EV mode after using hybrid drive to accelerate up to cruising speeds on the highway. This way, not much battery power was required to sustain highway speeds so long as the road was almost perfectly flat.

If any sort of acceleration was required or if the battery range was getting too low, I would switch back to hybrid mode where the engine would keep topping up the battery.

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The main trick out of this entire equation is to save enough battery to cruise the final kilometres to your destination on pure EV mode alone, assuming of course that you have an available electrical socket waiting. With familiarity, I managed to get this routine down to a science with just 1 kilometre of range left on the battery and as little fuel burnt as possible.

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As for the ride and handling, the Prius conducts itself in a matter that would expect out of a well-sorted small car. Its fuel efficient shape also results in a quiet interior and the ride is surprisingly comfortable. There are some quick pitching motions on undulating pavement, but overall the experience is pleasant enough.

Handling is safe and secure, but the electric power steering’s feel is as far removed as you can get from the word “dynamic”. It is vague and feels like it was stolen from a video game console. There also seems to be no good reason for its unconventional oval shape other than being different.

Interior

The large centre console and double-decker dash layout are probably the first things that you’ll notice when getting into the Prius.

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On the plus side, the radio and climate controls are mounted high and within easy reach. The dual level layout also leaves a lot of space for storage underneath the gearshift knob.

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Perplexingly, there is only one cupholder and the heated seat controls are in the most hidden spot possible, under the dash, forward of the lower level storage shelf.

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The interior, while well put together, plays a lot to the Prius’ environmentally friendly image. While the textures are nice, there’s nothing really plush here with a lot of hard plastics.

The rear seats and cargo carrying capacity of the Prius are very impressive for a small car. Out back, adults will find plenty of legroom and headroom. While it’s a bit narrow for three adults abreast, the Prius is a perfectly viable family car.

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Adding to this practicality, the hatchback design of the Prius results in a decent amount of cargo room available, especially as the rear seats can fold down flat. This is a major feather in the Prius PHV’s hat that isn’t share with other plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles out there on the market.

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Why should you buy / or not buy the Prius PHV

If you don’t want a diesel vehicle and are dead set on a hybrid, the Prius plug-in hybrid makes a lot of sense even though it commands a price premium of several thousand dollars over the non-plug-in model.

If you like the Prius, there’s very little to dislike about the PHV version aside from its larger price tag and lack of a spare tire (due to the bigger battery).

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The way I see it, assuming you live and work within a 15-25 kilometre radius and have access to a power outlet or a public high speed charger at both ends, the PHV may make a bunch of sense.

In this scenario, you can literally drive on primarily in EV mode on your daily commute, leaving the hybrid functionality (and range anxiety behind) for longer weekend trips out. Once the battery runs out of charge, the Prius PHV functions just like a regular Prius, using the brakes and gasoline engine to regenerate itself.

If I do have one small but poignant suggestion to the engineering boffins at Toyota, it is to design a better travel charger. Both Ford’s and GM’s 120 volt travel chargers have a built-in cord management system that allows the electrical cord to be looped around the charger itself. Toyota’s simpler design just leaves you with a tangled rats nest of cord to deal with.

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Wrap-Up

Just as with other models in the Prius family, Toyota’s longstanding philosophy of designing and engineering eco vehicles resonates more strongly today than ever before.

Toyota firmly believes that plug-in electric vehicles will augment hybrids in the immediate future but not replace them. The Prius PHV is supposed to be the Prius family member that represents the best of both worlds, bringing the superior fuel efficiency of the standard Prius together with an extended range electric driving capability.

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This first plug-in vehicle for the Toyota brand also happens to also offer the lowest starting MSRP of any plug-in hybrid in Canada. My fully-loaded tester came in at a sticker price (before tax and freight/PDI) of $41,140.

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With seating for five, hatchback versatility, rock-solid reliability, and amazing fuel economy, there’s a lot to like about the Prius. That’s probably it remains a perennial favorite in various owner satisfaction surveys. History has shown that those owners like to drive them, with more examples on the far side of 200,000+ kilometres than you might expect.

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And so while the Prius may not pack a lot of excitement, it makes for a nice place to be in while the miles roll up. Assuming you don’t mind the lack of a dynamic driving experience or the stigma (for better or worse) associated with driving a Prius, its compact dimensions and good fuel economy make it an excellent choice for commuting, running errands, or road trips, and ironclad reliability means you won’t be seeing much of your mechanic.

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While the Prius PHV doesn’t take a giant leap over the standard Prius, it plays up on what makes the latter a huge success, but zaps it up another notch.

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2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in price list

Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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