How Much Electric Range Does The New Toyota Prius Plug-in Need To Be Competitive?

As Toyota prepares to launch its fourth-generation 2016 Prius through U.S. dealers this January, it’s saying nothing much about the plug-in hybrid version due to follow.

This article might just have well stirred the pot asking “what do we know” about the next Prius PHV, but what we know is actually quite a lot, except for one major question: all-electric range.

The new Prius PHV, which analyst Alan Baum projects might be revealed as soon as spring 2016 and be on sale that same fall, will share all major underpinnings with the regular hybrid stablemate (pictured above).

Aesthetic distinctions are expected, but the platform, powertrain and overall design inside and out are likely to be a variation on the known theme, with the primary difference being beefed-up electric drive capability.

This may be a good thing, as Toyota’s Prius PHV has, to put it politely, met with mixed reception since its launch in 2012.

2012-2015 Prius PHV.

2012-2015 Prius PHV.

In the small and insular world of plug-in enthusiasts, some saw Toyota’s 4.4-kilowatt-hour battery tacked on in place of a sub-2-kwh pack in the regular hybrid as a half measure. By comparison, the now-discontinued 2014-15 Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid had a 6.7-kwh pack, the Ford Energis have 7.6, the Hyundai Sonata PHEV has 9.8 and the new Chevy Volt has 18.4 kilowatt-hours.

The Prius PHV’s EPA rating was a mere 11 miles “elec+gas.” A careful driver might get 15 miles or more on a good drive, but it still fell short of all other competitors, and paled in comparison to the Chevy Volt.

2016 C-Max Energi. EV range: 20; MPG in hybrid mode, not as good (38 vs. 50 for the outgoing Toyota).

2016 C-Max Energi. EV range: 20; MPG in hybrid mode, not as good (38 vs. 50 for the outgoing Toyota).

Ford’s Energi siblings, the C-Max and Fusion, are rated 19 miles range. The pending 2016 Hyundai Sonata PHEV is rated a solid 27. The Volt had been rated 38, and this year it’s 53.

Can only a few more miles than 11 cut it for the next-gen Prius PHV as the market moves further from its low water mark?

A recent Japanese interview from Nikkei Technology with hybrid vehicle development chief Shunsuke Fushiki shed only a little light on the yet-under-wraps Prius PHV, but more range is in the offing.

Fushiki suggested Toyota does not wish to compromise interior space by stuffing more batteries in the trunk, or other passenger space, but it has looked at work-arounds for this dilemma.

SEE ALSO: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Sets New Electric-Range Benchmark

“For the new Prius, we moved the battery from under the luggage space to under the rear seats. To install a battery in a limited space, we reduced cell size and improved storability,” said Fushiki of the regular Prius. “We are still considering how to lay out the battery in the next Prius PHV. It is possible that the battery, whose capacity will be larger than that of the new Prius’ battery, will be stored in the center console or luggage space.”

The uncontested electric range champ, the 53-mile 2016 Volt – also stores less, is cramped with five people; a compact class while Prius is mid-sized. And, mpg in hybrid mode is 42 vs. probably 52.

The uncontested electric range champ, the 53-mile 2016 Volt – also stores less, is cramped with five people; a compact class while Prius is mid-sized. And, mpg in hybrid mode is 42 vs. possibly 52 for the new Prius PHV.

Both versions will ride on the Toyota New Global Architecture, so the issue is one of packaging, costs, and preserving owner satisfaction with the best compromise.

SEE ALSO: 2016 Toyota Prius First Drive Review – Video

In order to facilitate all-electric driving, Fushiki commented also on the upgrades to the powertrain that will distinguish the PHV.

“To ensure EV driving performance, we will employ a lithium-ion (li-ion) battery and motor that are different from those of the new Prius,” he said. “The li-ion battery of the new Prius is focused on output density. Because EV driving will be prioritized for the next Prius PHV, we are currently developing a battery with a focus on energy density. Also, we will employ a drive motor larger than that of the new Prius.”

Yes, But How Far Will It Go?

Aside from outright avoiding any mention, when asked Toyota has shied away from discussing battery only traveling range.

Since 2012 it has heard complaints loud and clear from advocates – for the original 11-mile plug-in Prius, and Toyota’s move toward fuel cell vehicles – but it has said the Prius plug-in will be better.

One hint came this summer from a Taiwanese website,, which said it had early revelations of both the 2016 Prius and Prius PHV.

It gained some credibility as images it showed ahead of any other source were very close and looked like slightly more stylized versions of what Toyota eventually revealed Sept. 8.

SEE ALSO: Have 2016 Toyota Prius Specs Already Been Revealed? was also correct in the JC08 fuel economy later revealed for the Prius Eco version, but it over-estimated electric motor power and total system horsepower, so were some its unequivocal statements nothing but guesswork?

In its comments about the Prius PHV, it boldly declared it will get 50 km range under Japan’s exceedingly easy going JC08 cycle, which might mean 21-22 miles by the U.S. EPA.

Whether anyone wants to bet the farm this statement is correct is strictly up to them.

This is Autonet's image of the plug-in Prius shown in July.

This is Autonet’s image of the plug-in Prius shown in July.

And what Toyota perceives it needs or wants to do may be another question. If it brought up the range to something in the teens under EPA, but still less than the Energis and Hyundai, it might still enjoy enough sales to keep the Japanese company happy.

Despite murmurings by electrification advocates, the Prius PHV since 2012 has enjoyed ranking as high as third overall in cumulative global sales among plug-in electrified vehicles.

The PHV began sales in Japan late January 2012, in the U.S. by February 2012, and in Europe late June 2012.

SEE ALSO: Is The 2016 Volt Worth Buying?

It has been out of production since June, and its 75,000 cumulative sales to date are only exceeded as of December by the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (85,000), Tesla Model S (100,000), Chevy Volt (about 104,000), and Nissan Leaf (200,000).

Underlying the Prius PHV is a well-known quantity known as the Prius. With that car’s large head start, reputation for reliability, and 50-mpg capability in regular hybrid mode, the Prius PHV did OK, even in the U.S. where Toyota corralled its sales into a mere 15 states.

A Mystery Intact

While it’s widely believed Toyota will launch the PHV for 2017, Fushiki’s statements saying Toyota is still mulling how to stuff in more batteries suggests the vehicle is further from production-ready than some may think.

The new Prius line also promises superior road manners.

The new Prius line also promises superior road manners.

Whatever Toyota decides, assuming the Prius PHV gets here as soon as has been hoped, it will be the second plug-in electrified car in history to receive a full redesign.

For those of you underwhelmed by 11 miles EV range, do you suppose they’ll do it right the second time?

Nikkei Technology