Despite Caveats, Prius Plug-in Hybrid Could Be Surprise Hit
Nissan says the all-electric Nissan Leaf will leapfrog the Toyota Prius as the greenest car on the market. GM says the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid will be the game-changer for energy and the environment. But the release of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid—on schedule for 2012—puts Toyota in an awkward position: the need to leapfrog itself.
“The problem is that we’re competing against ourselves,” said Bill Reinert, national manager, Advanced Technology Group at Toyota Motor Sales, speaking at the company’s Sustainable Mobility Seminar held in La Jolla, Calif. this week. The company convened academics and journalists to discuss the future of eco-friendly automotive fuels and technologies—and to launch the plug-in version of the Toyota Prius.
Instead of championing the Prius Plug-in Hybrid as an automotive savior, Reinert focused his energy on disclaimers of why the next iteration of the Prius—a plug-in version that can travel 13 miles without using a drop of gasoline—doesn’t make sense for a lot of consumers.
First, Reinert says, it’s going to be too expensive. The conventional Prius sells in the mid-$20,000, the “sweet spot where the public wants to spend their money,” according to Reinert. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid is going to exceed that price. “How do you offset the costs and make a cogent case for the customer, especially because the conventional Prius is so damn good?”
The third generation 2010 Toyota Prius is, in fact, very efficient. Its 1.8-liter internal combustion engine—forget about the batteries and electric motors for a minute—has set new records for efficiency. Reinert believes that adding lithium batteries and plug-in technology will mean even greater carbon reductions, but “they’re really expensive in dollars per ton reduction.”
He also wrings his hands about battery longevity. “We design our car for the second buyers. We want the used buyer to still expect the car will perform adequately for them,” Reinert said. “That’s the case for every Prius you’ve ever read. Right now, we don’t have a battery problem.” He worries that bigger lithium ion batteries required to achieve the Plug-in’s 13 miles of all-electric range will degrade over time. The Prius Plug-in uses three different batteries—two to provide all-electric miles and a third battery for when the first two are depleted and the vehicle becomes a regular 50-mpg Prius.
The Plug-in Prius, which will be tested for the next two years, is almost identical to the 2010 conventional Prius. Besides the addition of extra batteries and a plug, the differences are fairly trivial: air vents under the rear seats to help cool the additional batteries; no manual EV button because the computer takes care of shifting in and out of all-electric mode; and a small indicator lighter on the dash that goes off when the three-hour full charge from a 110-volt outlet is complete. Otherwise, in terms of its driving characteristics, creature comforts and style, it’s a Prius.
Maybe Reinert—who as a long-time veteran of advanced auto technology has seen too many supposed silver-bullet solutions come and go—doesn’t want to foist another false panacea on to the public. “If you’re communicating 120 miles per gallon, and you’re actually delivering 60, that’s a problem. Remember how we created a firestorm when our Prius was rated at 50-something and people were getting 45 mpg.” Reinert also cautioned that cold weather and other variable conditions could significantly reduce range. “How do you make this transparent to the customer when there’s so much hype out there?”
Our First Impressions
Based on our 18-mile test drive of the Prius Plug-in along the gorgeous La Jolla coast, Toyota’s only worry should be how it will keep up with demand. Until the last mile of our route, when we put the car in power-performance mode, cranked the AC and floored the accelerator uphill, the car maxed out to 99.9 mpg. By the end of the trip, we tallied an average of 87.7 miles per gallon, with 12.6 percent of driving in EV mode. Our top EV speed was 62 mph, and the average speed—including a number of stops at long traffic lights—was 25 mph.
Our only gripe is that the dashboard designers didn’t move the decimal point over so we could see how far over 100-mpg typical driving would be.
Sudden bursts of acceleration would temporarily kick the Prius Plug-in out of EV mode, but invariably it returned to all-electric driving. Regenerative braking helped push the overall amount of EV driving beyond the advertised range to about 14 miles, during the 18 miles of mixed city-highway miles. It was more difficult to drain the plug-in batteries or to force the car out of EV mode than we had anticipated.
Bear in mind that this was a fairly short route. If your commute is 40 miles or longer, the percentage of all-electric driving obviously will be reduced. But if you commonly drive around 15 miles out and back, before getting access to a charge at home or work, then the Prius Plug-in Hybrid basically becomes a practical mid-size family electric sedan.
The Business Case
For Toyota, less range means less cost—and therefore better economics to compete against the conventional Prius. Reinert said, “Our idea is a small battery. Design the battery small and make a business case, and charge up more frequently.”
Toyota has been criticized for lagging behind the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt in the race for a plug-in mass-market vehicle. Too much has been made of this timing. During 2011, Toyota will be evaluating about 600 Plug-in Priuses around the world—to see how real-world drivers handle the vehicle and its charging—until it moves into mass production in 2012. That’s essentially what Nissan and GM are doing, but with a few thousand vehicles put on sale or leased in select markets in 2011, until they can ramp up production for 2012.
That’s the magic year when consumers will have a choice between:
- Nissan Leaf, an all-electric compact car with 100 miles range
- Chevy Volt, a relatively expensive mid-size plug-in hybrid sedan with 40 miles range
- Prius Plug-in Hybrid, a more moderately priced plug-in sedan with 13 miles range
You might like one option of the other, but the availability of three plug-in options far exceeds what we have today.
Jaycie Chitwood, manager, advanced technology vehicles group, is overseeing the Toyota evaluation project, which will generate a lot of vehicle use data, as well as market information about how Toyota customers view the conventional versus the plug-in Prius models. “There are people that buy for emotional reasons and they just love that freedom of all-electric driving,” Chitwood told HybridCars.com. “If they are already paying more for a Prius, then now they’re going to pay even more for a plug-in Prius. Where’s your value proposition? It’s either in lower cost of driving, and lower cost per mile for electricity versus gasoline, and it’s high MPG.”
We asked if all these attractive attributes might make the Prius Plug-in Hybrid a surprise hit.
Chitwood paused as if considering that possibility for the first time. “We’re open to that.”