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?”

Bill Reinert at Toyota 2010 Sustainable Mobility Seminar, La Jolla, Calif.
Reinert Presentation Slide about Market Potential for PHEVs

Bill Reinert, Toyota’s advanced technology guru, presenting in La Jolla. In his slide, he indicates that plug-in hybrids are outside the economic range of the mass market. Exact pricing has not been announced.

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.”

Thinking Ahead

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.

Brad Berman, HybridCars.com editor, pushes the limit of EV driving in the Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

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.”


  • Anonymous

    Last year, the regular Prius sold 400,000 units worldwide. Atleast 300,000 of them would have been the Prius-III which went on sale in mid-May.

    This year, Prius should be selling atleast 500,000 units worldwide, at this rate, it will sell 2,400,000 units if it has a 6 year run.

    In Japan, its outselling both Camry & Corolla put together. So Prius has no competition and Toyota does not bother about plugin prius.

    Lets see, if Leaf & Volt becomes a hit, then Toyota will rethink its plans on plugin. Until then dont expect Plugin Prius.

    It also depends on the gas prices.

  • Shines

    That’s why I really like Toyotas – “We design our car for the second buyers. We want the used buyer to still expect the car will perform adequately for them,”
    I bought my Camry used (with over 85000 miles on it) and it is by far the best and most reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned. I am glad Toyota is evaluating the batteries so carefully. What would be the additional cost of replacing the larger batteries in the Leaf or Volt if they die after say 100k miles?!? Maybe in 5 years the battery costs will be down, but who will be willing to shell out an additional $5000 – $8000 for new batteries in a used vehicle? Maybe if the price of gas is $7 – $10 a galon?

  • Charles

    Contrary to the statement in the report, the Volt’s range is not 40 miles – it is several hundred miles. It is only the all electric range that is 40 miles. This is an important distinction.

  • Achilles

    “The problem is that we’re competing against ourselves,”

    This is THE key point. The latest fuel-only Prius is now the benchmark for everything else, including fuel cell and BEVs. For example, it is easy to show that a typical BEV (say a Leaf) produces less CO2 than a 25 mpg conventional vehicle, assuming average U.S. grid CO2/kWh. But a fuel-only Prius emits a mere 89g CO2/km. Most U.S. BEV proponents seem to be taking a 1985 V-8 as their baseline. The bar has been raised. And will be raised again, when the ‘Strong Hybrids’ arrive……

    Of course, BEVs and plug-ins make much more sense in France, in terms of both emissions and running costs.

  • Old Man Crowder

    I like the fact that this guy is being very upfront about the limitations of the PHEV. Rather than being all “RAH! RAH! We rock!” and then risk disappointing customers by not living up to the hype, he’s talking a little more realistically.

    Show me the pros AND the cons. Don’t try to snowball me with marketing hype. Just make the damned thing and let me decide for myself!

  • Yegor

    More Plug-in Hybrids is better – we need them yesterday. There are some technical problems to solve like driving in cold conditions but it is nothing serious. It is a fine tuning if you compare it to fuel cells cars problems. The Plug-in Hybrids technologies have advanced enough to make Plug-in Hybrids a competitive transportation – all that is needed is a fine tuning.
    I am glad that we are going to have Plug-in Hybrids with 3 different ranges – 13, 40 and 100 miles – we will see which one is better.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Shines, I agree that Toyota needs to be cautious about the batteries for the sake of the customer. I think Old Man Crowder has got it correct – less of the “rose colored glasses” and more talk about what could be the real “reality”.

    Toyota tested the metal halides for many years and was able to state that the batteries would “last the lifetime of the car”. This would have to be a minimum of 180K miles based off the car warranties required by some of the states. Since there is data that shows some second generation Prius are 300K+ miles and still on the original batteries, it looks like Toyota’s wish for the Prius batteries to last for the second hand buyers will be realized. And the previous detractors that claimed the batteries will only last a year or two (and cost $10K to $15K) before having to be replaced – where are they now? Toyota has never had to warranty replace large quantities of batteries. And the cost for total replacement after warranty is under $4K should one need to be replaced.

    But the lithium batteries have not been as well tested for any one particular design of lithium battery ( there are more designs being developed as we speak). By putting in a smaller and less costly battery, should these designs prove to be less robust than the metal halides, it will be less costly to Toyota replace these designs and opens up the future for more robust lithium battery designs and replacements, especially as battery cost come down. That sounds like a “win / win” situation for Toyota while the others go out on that more risky lithium battery design “limb”.

    I have no doubt that once the battery designs are robust enough, Toyota will design both hybrids and all electric cars that will go more than 50 miles to the charge and still be affordable to the masses.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    There’s only one technical problem that leads me to suspect that Toyota is still just trying to downplay revolutionary improvements to their dominant cash cow, the wimpy hybrid.
    Battery life is mostly affected by cycle life. There are a certain number of kWhrs of electricity which can pass through a battery over its lifetime This, of course, depends somewhat on when you declare the lifetime to be over (80%, 50%, ?). If you don’t charge the battery as much each time and drive it as far between charges (ie you don’t use the entire capacity of the battery), you can get a lot more actual cycles but, of course you get less range out of the batteries. If you charge it all the way up and run it all the way down every time, you’ll get fewer cycles. The total number of kWhrs (or miles driven) on the battery remain about the same.
    This means that a Toyota Prius with only a 13 mile range will require about 7,700 charges if it goes 100,000 miles (13,800 for 180K miles). Since today’s batteries are good for between 500 and 1500 charge cycles, the Nissan Leaf, with 100 miles will go 50K to 150K miles on it’s first battery, the Volt 20K to 60K miles (plus any gasoline miles), and the Model S, 150K to 450K miles.
    How can Toyota suggest that their car will last through the 2nd buyer if it will only go 13 electric miles on a charge? Do they have better batteries?
    Or are they:
    1) Assuming that 13 miles is so insignificant that since most people will drive more than 13 miles per day, most of the driving will be using gasoline, not plug-in power? Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy drive is designed to minimize the use of the batteries, using them as little as possible to just barely offset the inefficiency of the ICE.
    2) Are they going to carry the same number of batteries as GM’s Volt but only use the middle 1/3 of it’s capacity? If so, why not use full capability and go 40 miles on a charge and go just as many miles?
    3) Just try to keep their faithful customers buying conventional gasoline-only Priuses while trying to appear to be progressive.
    4) Limiting the plug-in only speed to ~62 mph to reduce the kWhrs per mile from the battery, thus reducing the wear on it, expecting power drivers to be using a lot of gasoline.
    5) Planning to surprise us with a good plug-in if the Leaf, Volt, Model S, etc are successful.

    Now don’t get me wrong. 13 miles of non-gasoline range is hugely better than zero miles of it but you’re going to still have to go to the gas station.

  • Samie

    How funny Toyota often downplays expectations while GM hypes up anything possible. Not to get anybody mad but it would not surprise me if Toyota is already dumping millions if not billions into a EV Prius concept while trying to keep consumers interested in the current Prius model.

    If Nissan delivers the Leaf by meeting expectations while quickly improving on cost reductions who’s to say that the Leaf cannot outsell the traditional Prius in 5-9 years. Toyota took a chance by producing the Prius and building a strong customer following while reducing costs and improving the car with each passing generation. We can not predict how consumers will react to a true alternative to the ICE/hybrid/diesel engines that have dominated as the only mass produced options for the last hundred years. As I said above don’t be shocked by a EV Prius which will come sooner than most of you think.

  • Shines

    ex-EV1 I see that you want all electric to succeed. But I wouldn’t call the Prius hybrid wimpy. Right now there is no other vehicle for under $30k that goes 50 miles on a gallon of gas. When the Leaf and Volt appear they will be expensive. You are probably right about battery life and that is why the Prius will only go 13 miles in all electric. I suspect the battery would be capable of going 20+ miles in all electric but to make it last much longer it limits its range to 13. By the way 7700 charges would only happen if someone drove exactly 13 miles every time they drove their Prius – not likely. It will be interesting to see how many people will be willing to spend over $30k for the Leaf or Volt. If Nissan comes out with an easy to connect charger trailer (towable generator) for long trips in the Leaf it just might be the winner.

  • Mr.Bear

    I like the plug-in prius. Because of it’s regen breaking, I’m betting I could drive it all 20 miles into work on a full charge because it’s 90% downhill. Then I might be able to get 1/4 of the way back before I’m kicked out of EV mode.

    But I still think the $30k price tag is too expensive for that benefit.

  • Nelson Lu

    Shines, the Prius is wimpy when compared to the Fusion Hybrid (which, of course, you have as your icon). Obviously, the Fusion Hybrid doesn’t get the same mileage numbers, but it is a significantly larger car that drives better.

    In any case, right now, for Toyota to play up the plug-in Prius is self-defeating (as they noted). For the late-comers like GM, they would indeed have to play up the plug-ins. It’s hard to say what Ford, which is kind of positioned in the middle, would be doing with its plug-ins.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    ex-EV1 driver, the comparison of the Volt, the Leaf, and the Prius batteries cannot be made; each car has a different size battery for different purposes. If one would buy the plug-in Prius expecting to get the $7500 tax credit, they will be very disappointed. The Volt will have a 16 kWh capacity and qualify for the $7500 tax credit. The Leaf will have a 90kWh capacity and easily qualify for the tax credit. The Prius will have only a 5.2 kWh capacity and will not qualify for the tax credit.

    The Volt is designed for a customer that goes 47 or 48 miles or less on a daily basis. The Leaf is designed for 100 miles per charge and no gas backup system. The Prius plug-in is designed for battery power to the corner store 5 miles away (or less) from home, and then gas powered, with an initial all electric assist, for all trips of any truly long length.

  • Benjamin Branch

    This car is going to be a huge sales success, the market for electric and hybrid electric cars, especially plug-ins, has been massively underestimated.

  • John K.

    Q: When will Toyota switch to Li ion for their conventional Prius?

  • Mr. Fusion

    If I was planning to spend 30k + on a new vehicle in 2012, I have my 3 options.
    Now lets see…what would I invest in?

    A. GM: poor craftsmanship and reliability record with false claims on a brand new technology.
    B: Nissan: Out of the blue EV, home charging station and scattered infrastructure.
    C: Toyota: Tried and true, carefully tested and reliable.

    I believe the early adopters will buy the Nissan, help build infrastructure and real-world data for further develpment. As far as mass market, at this point, I wouldn’t trust my hard earned dollars on anything but Toyota.

  • George Parrott

    At least the early adopters of PHEV models will get a purchase discount via Federal and many state tax credits. In California early PHEV purchasers will get both a $7500 federal credit AND a $5000 state credit. A fully loaded Nissan Leaf thus costs around $20k here. We can hardly wait for these options, as we have our garage already wired with a 220V circuit and 50amp breaker along with an extra 1.4kW solar PV system above what our inside home needs require. I only “fault” Toyota in their Plug-in Prius test fleet for assigning the cars ONLY to “fleet” use and none to actual and typical end-users. ALL the test fleet cars in this country are going to corporate use settings like utility companies and UC campus use. This is poor planning, IMHO, as such use is simply not representative of actual and typical “real buyers.”

  • ex-EV1 driver

    George Parrot,
    It is much easier to ‘make-disappear’ cars that are only leased to fleets. This is what Toyota did with most of their RAV4EVs and Nissan did with their Altra and Hyper-mini EVs during the ’90′s. Real buyers tend to get upset when they get their cars taken from them.

  • usbseawolf2000

    5.2kWh battery in the PHV Prius will quality for $2,917 tax credit.

  • veek

    An eagerly anticipated but poorly designed plug-in vehicle would not be to anyone’s advantage.

    Remember the General Motors passenger car diesel several years ago?
    The poor durability and drivability of these GM vehicles helped turn American consumers off to fuel-efficient diesel engines for many years. Problems with battery durability and range could easily turn off American consumers to plug-in vehicles in a similar manner.

    Looking at Toyota’s longevity track record and at the known durability problems with mass-marketed lithium batteries, it appears Toyota has done its homework.

  • AP

    ex-EV1 driver, leasers aren’t “real buyers.” The car company (or finance company) maintains ownership throughout. You can’t have taken from you what you never owned.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    AP, I agree. I understand that much better than most, having had personal experience.

  • John & Regina

    For us, a more affordable car with 13 miles all-electric range is preferable to a more expensive car with 40 or 100 miles all-electric. Toyota is a lot more sensible than GM on this score. We live in Michigan and especially want to buy a vehicle that’s made right here — but we can’t afford the Volt, even with the $7,500 fed income-tax credit………….. Based on the info available now, our next two vehicles will probably be the 2012 plug-in hybrid Prius with 13-mile electric range, and the 2013 plug-in hybrid Ford Escape SUV. Apaprently, both will be assembled in the USA: Prius at Toyota’s new Mississippi plant, Escape at Ford’s existing Kansas City MO plant. Encouraging developments all the way around!!

  • Bill

    Excuse me! I get a kick out of how many of you are so ignorant about cars. You act like you know, but you don’t. I own a car that cost a LOT less than 30K, and I will challenge a prius on hwy mileage any day! I’ve recorded over 51 mpg hwy with my Honda Civic GX without using ANY gasoline! And in the city, I’ve achieved in the high 40′s. Oh, and you can take this to the bank!: The LEAF will outsell the Prius and the Volt hands down! While you Prius and Volt owners will be using gasoline (it WILL go way up), we’ll be charging up at HOME for as little as a buck or less using our pvs on the roof! Now you can take this and shove it up your tailpipes! LOL :)

  • Bill

    Wow! You people need to get more educated about the LEAF before you make such uninformed comments. You will not need a generator for long trips with the LEAF. There will be a ‘fast’ charge (15 minutes for a 50 mile charge) station about every 50 miles or so along the interstates BEFORE the LEAF is mass produced and in big numbers. In the fall, before the LEAFs are delivered in DEC/JAN there will be over 1000 charging stations (50 of those being fast chargers) in the states it is being released. :)

  • Bill

    Btw, in case you haven’t heard, dealers are going to KILL the Volt by charging up to 20K over MSRP! I’m sure Prius dealers are going to ask above MSRP too. However, with the LEAF, not only are most dealers not gouging, but one dealer in CA is offering it for $1,000 UNDER MSRP with NO add-ons unless they’re wanted. I believe it is time to stop giving BIG OIL money and have a much cleaner environment. So with all these charging stations going in, the LEAF will leapfrog any other competitor because that ‘weak’ argument about range will be moot! :)

  • GB

    My sense is that the Prius Plug-in will effectively increase the Prius fuel efficiency from 50 MPG to ~85 MPG, assuming a nominal 30 mile roundtrip commute with no charging at the work-place.

    Realized MPG will, of course, depend on commute length and recharge-at-work options.

    The real challenge for all plug-ins is that they are facing the law of diminishing returns versus the excellent performance of the current Prius and Insight, so an economic case for the incremental MPG is much harder to make.

    My bet is that the the new crop of plug-ins (Leaf, Volt and Prius Plug-in) will find a market demand of 10,000 to 20,000 units per year, with about half of that in California and the other half sprinkled across the U.S.

    Let’s see what 2012 brings and may the best car win!

  • AlexisJames

    I really like the Nissan Leaf. I have considered buying this for my teenage daughter. I’m not sure if she will like the car wrap that says “plug in hybrid”. Does it come with the car wrap on it? Are you able to choose your own green saying for the car wrap? Another concern is the battery. You stated that the battery longevity wasn’t very long. How much does a replacement battery run?

  • Josh Loring

    We recently did some vehicle wraps for the Nissan Leafs and were very surprised how much we liked them. If you watched the Boston or New York Marathon, the Nissan Leaf was the Pace car. I think that I still like the Prius better with it’s sharp lines, but going 100% electric is the way to go.

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