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The difference lies in how the two vehicles trade off between their electric motors and combustion engines. A plug-in Prius alters the balance between using its engine and running in pure electric mode—more electric, less engine compared to a standard Prius—but still swaps frequently between the two.
The Volt, on the other hand, is a pure electric vehicle for its first 40 miles. The gasoline engine only kicks in after that, but never powers the wheels. Instead, it turns a generator that recharges the battery pack—which powers the car through its electric motor, the sole way to make the car move. (GM incessantly points out that two-thirds of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, inferring that many Volt owners might never get to the point where the car switches on its engine.)
In the run-up to sales of the Volt—which GM has now started to hint could happen sooner than late 2010—you should expect to hear a lot more about why the Volt isn’t a “plug-in hybrid” but an “extended-range electric car.” GM has already publicized the vehicle more than any other upcoming vehicle. Its goal is to garner green points from a public that associates Toyota with good fuel economy… and Chevrolet with huge SUVs and pickup trucks.
But it’s an interesting PR challenge. Given that Toyota spent several years saying you didn’t have to plug in the Prius, how ready are consumers to hear about the differences among different types of cars that all have power cords? Stay tuned.