From £23,319
Does running a plug-in hybrid really make sense as a 500-mile-a-week driver? Six months with a Toyota Prius Plug-in should give a conclusive answer

Our Verdict

Fourth-generation Toyota Prius

The reborn Toyota Prius may be the world’s most popular hybrid, but it faces stiffening competition from Hyundai, Volkswagen and Audi

Steve Cropley Autocar
14 March 2018

Why we're running it: Is it a logical next step towards full electrification or an expensive distraction? Few cars intrigue more than the Toyota Prius PHEV 

Month 1 - Month 2 - Month 3 - Month 4 - Month 5 - Specs

Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 6

Putting the PHEV outside its comfort zone - 7th March 2018

“Would you like,” suggested Steve Cropley one day, “to trade your Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate for my Toyota Prius Plug-in for several days? Oh, and if you can maintain the Prius’s average fuel consumption up around the current 92mpg mark, that’d be great.”

No pressure, then. The Prius has rewarded Steve with some exceptional indicated fuel economy claims, but many of his weekday trips have been short hops across the city, which play to the strengths of this hybrid’s powertrain. He’s able to cruise along at slow-ish speeds on the battery-powered electric motor, only occasionally calling upon the petrol engine.

Muggins here, on the other hand, would be putting the Prius through a 43-mile slog along the M3 twice a day and, as an added complication, I don’t have a EV recharging box bolted to the side of my house, which reduced my options when it came to keeping the drive battery topped up.

We have a charging point at Autocar Towers but, faced with 86 miles daily, there was a risk that I’d quickly deplete the battery pack’s claimed 39-mile driving range (which in real-world driving is considerably less) and have to rely more heavily on the petrol engine. That felt inefficient, and I risked incurring Steve’s wrath by eating into his average fuel economy.

It didn’t quite end up like that. I found I could let the hybrid system juggle the power sources on the motorway, then press the ‘EV City’ button to deploy electric-only mode as I reached the urban stretch near theendofmyjourney.Thatway, thecarreturnedanindicated 70mpg-plus for the trip.

I would actually have liked to have used electric power at the start of my journey for the three miles to the motorway but, with ambient temperatures hovering around freezing, I needed to use the heater to clear the windscreen and warm the car, and that demand on the car’s energy supply seemed to be enoughforthepetrolengineto need to get involved.

Toyota claims the Prius Plug- in is good for motorway speeds on electric power alone, but that kind of behaviour causes the remaining battery range to plummet and makes little sense.

Even in hybrid mode, the car feels a little bit strained at times when you need to squeeze the throttle just that little bit harder to, say, maintain speed on an uphill section. The car reacts with a noisy f lare of revs and the bar charts on the dashboard detailing your energy usage shoot to the top of their ranges, admonishing your rashness.

On the other hand, I found that journeys on undulating motorways such as the M3 offered ample opportunities for the regenerative braking system to send energy back to the battery, so much so that my fears of lugging around a fully depleted battery were unfounded.

The most relieving news of all was that the impressive average fuel economy Steve has worked so hard to cultivate remained (almost) intact.

Mileage: 9541

Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 5

Is it good looking? – 21 February 2018

I keep getting into debates about whether the Prius Plug-in is good- looking or not. To me, it’s great because it’s so modern: low and wedgy so the frontal area’s small, nicely detailed at the front with compact headlights, well packaged (barring the shallow boot) and clearly shaped by the wind. Makes others look like tin boxes.

Mileage: 9259

Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 4

Cold battery range – 31 January 2018

The recent wintry weather seems to have cut four or five miles from our Toyota Prius plug-in’s stated battery-only driving range (from 33 miles to 29) and anything other than the gentlest driving seems to reduce it more easily than in warmer conditions. Overall fuel mileage is now about 93mpg — still brilliant, but not quite as good as it was.

Mileage: 8775

Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 4

The impressive range of our Prius PHEV – 17 January 2017

It’s been freezing lately. For months we’ve been wondering how our plug-in Prius would cope with the traditional winter enemies of electric cars: a lower range when fully charged and a tendency for on-board power to be diverted to stuff like heating, headlights and keeping screens alive. Now we’ve had the opportunity to find out.

The Prius does, expectedly, lose charge when it’s cold, but not disastrously.

Compared with the best fair-weather driving range available from a fully charged battery (about 33-34 miles), we’re now being offered 28 instead.

On motorways, while cruising at 65-70mph and keeping decently warm, you get a real-world 20-22 miles, but in town you’ll get all of the promised miles if you’re careful. In other words, the car will still do an average out-and-back commute on battery power alone.

One of the curiosities of the on-board fuel computer is that when you’re driving on electric power only, it always shows its maximum 199mpg.

That figure starts to fall once the car begins to use its petrol engine but takes a few miles to go below 199. You’ll have driven 45-50 miles by the time your journey average falls to 100mpg, a Prius party-trick that unfailingly impresses passengers and gives you, the fuel buyer, a nice warm feeling.

Inevitably, our car’s whole life fuel mileage has fallen a bit over 7600 miles. It’s now running at 93.6mpg, still spectacular, but below the 96-ish we were achieving in warmer weather. The computer’s carefully recorded proportion of electric running (41 percent) has hardly changed, and you never seem to spend more than £35 filling the tank.

If it’s frugal fuel usage and low tailpipe emissions you want, this car is a very good real-world solution, provided you can regularly charge the car at home and/or at work.

Apart from the deeply impressive frugality, another surprising attraction of the Prius PHEV is how much many people enjoy driving it. Nearly everyone who gets behind the wheel for a second time makes some remark about the feelings of quietness and calm that go with driving it, and the simplicity of its operation. There are no gears to change, and in one simple action you can increase the default rate of deceleration (and thereby increase energy regeneration) and drive with very little use of the brakes.

If you do need the brakes you’ll find them powerful but sometimes variable in strength, depending how much the friction side of stopping is being assisted by electric regeneration. But they’re nowhere near as unpredictable as hybrid systems used to be. I’ve also come to appreciate the Prius’s uncorrupted, perfectly weighted, nicely geared steering.

The responses of the plug-in Prius will never thrill you, but don’t get the idea that this means its controls are woolly and imprecise. The reverse is true, actually, and the point is perfectly made by the way the car steps off from a standstill.

An increasing number of conventional cars, especially those with automatic gearboxes and big engines, have a built-in hesitation on departure forced on them by clean-air requirements. The Prius (and others like it) do exactly what you ask, which is one reason why they feel so precise and swift in town.

Mileage: 7623

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Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 3

The Prius’s seasonal range changes – 06 December 2017​

Having come to depend on the car’s battery-only capability for my city commute, I’ve begun noticing how battery range changes with temperature.

On 18-20deg C days, the full-charge cruising range of the Prius PHEV was about 30 miles.

Now winter has bitten, it’s 26-27 miles, enough to knock the overall average back to 95.1mpg. Still impressive, I’d say.

Mileage: 6859

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Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 2

The perks of driving a plug-in hybrid – 15 November 2017

One of the best things about running a car that needs charging points is that said sockets tend to be in prime parking spots, such as in the big bosses’ car park where we work.

No security man dares protest when the Toyota glides in every morning, but if it were a petrol BMW, they’d kick it out, sharpish.

Running petrol consumption still at 96mpg.

Mileage: 5480

Driving the Prius without economy in mind – 25 October 2017​

There are only two things I honestly dislike about our Toyota Prius plug-in, and both are located on the carbonfibre tailgate. They’re the badges that prominently read PRIUS PHV (on the left) and PLUG-IN HYBRID (on the right).

I guess they’re there because Toyota is determined to stress its increasingly famous environmental credentials.

Trouble is, other drivers take these things the wrong way. There’s a growing body who know exactly how the plug-in hybrid functions, and associate it – and the person behind the wheel – with an economy-chasing driving style that casts the driver as someone who will impede the progress of the driver behind, perhaps for fun.

This is wrong. The Prius plug-in can lay down a perfectly reasonable 0-60mph acceleration time of 10.3sec, enhanced by the instant response from standstill of its electric motor, and the ability of its continuously variable transmission to provide the perfect gear ratio for every occasion.

It’s true that you’re inclined at times to adopt an unhurried driving style – because the main purpose of this car is low fuel consumption and ultra-low emissions output – but I resent the presumption that this is a slower car.

It’s not slow, either in a straight line or around corners. The handling may not be sporty, but the car has a very low centre of gravity, its weight distribution is much closer to 50:50 than any conventional front-drive hatchback, it has quick, uncorrupted steering and a small wheel, and given its modest tyre size it grips very well in bends, which it negotiates neutrally.

I’ve surprised plenty of ordinary repmobile drivers in roundabouts with both the step-off and the grip, which makes it galling to be cast as a member of the Anti-Destination League. If I could magic those badges away, I’d do it.

Ironically, I’m discovering that the Prius PHEV is an economy car, whatever driving style you adopt. At first, I always drove for economy, fearing that if I didn’t, I’d discover fuel-drinking foibles I didn’t want to know about.

My policy is to recharge the car whenever I have a decent opportunity (these exist both at home and at work) and the result, at 4984 miles driven, is an average consumption of 101.6mpg – plus (as someone is bound to point out) the electric power I’ve used. A handy read-out tells me that, despite the fact that I’ve done lots of motorway driving, the car has spent 42 percent of its time in electric drive.

More important is my experience when the car’s operating beyond its electric range, which I’ve discovered is a dependable 33 miles in town, 25 miles on the motorway.

Cruising with the rest of the motorway traffic (with only an occasional tickle from the battery reserves to aid resumption of cruising speed after an obstacle), you can get 65mpg – courtesy of design and technical features such as the small frontal area and the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle engine – without trying. With effort, you can push it to the high 70s.

Such things may not provide the rush of conventional high performance, but they can definitely afford you a lot of satisfaction. If this is the future there’s nothing to fear, and plenty ahead to enjoy.

Mileage: 4984

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Life with a Toyota Prius Plug-in: Month 1

Getting in a tangle with Prius PHEV’s cables – 04 October 2017

For a car that is so logically thought out in nearly every other way, the Prius’s cable storage arrangements are annoyingly hard to use.

The compartment provided is too small, which means you simply resort to coiling the cables and chucking them in the boot as neatly as you can, compromising the shallow space even more than it already is.

Mileage: 3105

Welcoming the Prius Plug-in to our fleet – 06 September 2017​

Funny how friends, usually those who don’t care much about cars, get straight to the heart of car matters.

“This thing’s all about fuel economy, isn’t it?” said someone who’s never bought a decent car in his life, on first clapping eyes on my Toyota Prius PHEV.

I’d not have put it so baldly. To me, the plug-in Prius is a bundle of intriguing new technology. It is built on Toyota’s bold, better-packaged TGNA architecture, has its electric-only top speed lifted from 53mph to 84mph, boasts a remarkably low aero coefficient of 0.25 and packs 50 percent more battery power, which it can replenish nearly twice as fast.

Its 97bhp Atkinson-cycle 1.8-litre four-pot petrol engine reaches 40 percent efficiency (30-35 percent is usual) and there’s even a ventilation gizmo that knows when there’s only one occupant and avoids wasting energy cooling the rest of the cabin.

Yet the plain truth is that when my friend spoke, I’d been boasting for five minutes solid about how the new Prius’s trip computer was showing 100mpg for 1200 miles, even though half the driving had been on longish motorway journeys. Economy is indeed the Toyota PHEV’s purpose and party trick.

I’m not sure what we wrote about this car a year ago is quite what we’d write now.

In recent months, diesels have started looking less enticing whereas plug-in hybrids (if you interpret the government’s plans correctly) have been green-lighted until 2050. It’s an important signal. These are cars we’d better get used to.

Our new Prius PHEV Business Edition relates closely in looks and function to a standard non-plug Prius.

It has the same reasonably spacious four-seat cabin trimmed in shiny, black, durability-conscious materials; same centrally located instrument pack full of fascinating functions and efficiency info; and much the same styling (apart from 11cm of extra body length to accommodate the battery under the boot floor) and a swoopily styled carbonfibre tailgate that helps reclaim some of the battery’s weight.

There’s quite a story around that new battery. At 8.8kWh, it has twice the capacity of the previous unit, increasing electric-only range from 15 to more than 30 miles. Despite that, it charges nearly twice as quickly, yet it’s only 50 percent heavier (at 120kg) and 66 percent bulkier than its predecessor. The bad news is that the boot is now 16cm shallower than a standard Prius’s, so carrying holiday luggage is now this family car’s most serious challenge.

At £33,195, our Prius Business Edition Plus costs £7200 more than a similar-spec non-PHEV Prius.

However, for that difference, you get a roof-mounted solar panel (which contributes two to three miles’ city driving a day in full sun, or more than 400 miles in a year) plus the 30-mile all-electric capability. There’s an extra filler flap at the driver’s side for the charging cable, plus all the gadgetry you need for a full charge from a Type 2 plug in two hours.

When you start driving, the first things you notice are silence, smoothness, easy step-off and the fact that this is no performance car. You can choose from four powertrain modes (HV hybrid, EV only, EV City and Battery Charge) that govern how the car’s two electric motors and petrol engine work together.

With everything going as hard as systems will allow, you get 120bhp to work with. The performance figures are modest (101mph flat out, 11.1sec 0-62mph) but are kept respectable by a well-contained kerb weight of 1550kg, and the innate low-end response of the electric motors allows you a quicker step-off in roundabouts than the bald power figure leads you to expect.

What I’ve learned from 1200 miles’ use is that how individual drivers cope with the Prius PHEV depends very much on the use the car is put to.

Station-and-school users may rarely need anything but electric power. But if, like me, you do 500-plus miles a week, about 100 miles of it at slow speeds in the city, charging the car as often as possible, your bottom-line petrol economy will hit the high 90s and sometimes reach three figures. You’ll discover that 70-80mph is the viable cruising speed and that, with reasonable care, you can get an impressive 65-75mpg even without electric assistance. So yes, it’s all about economy.

However, the chassis ability is a surprise. The all-independent suspension (struts in front, double wishbones behind) has relaxed spring rates and the car rolls on 15in wheels with squishy sidewalls so the low-speed ride is absorbent. There’s a bit of a tendency to bounce at middle-range speeds, but the car is quiet and comfortable over suburban bumps.

Which makes the steering and grip a major surprise. The car corners neatly, grips well, doesn’t roll much and has quick, uncorrupted steering.

It’s never going threaten the GTIs, but it grows increasingly enjoyable and accurate to drive as you explore what it can do. The underbits may be exotic but the Prius PHEV is fitting my average-busy business life very well.

Second opinion

For many, the Prius’s Achilles heel may be the asking price, but if the maths do work (and for some they will), then the car itself is supreme: economical, refined, spacious and more. It is yet another example of why there is no reason to fear the onset of electrification

Jim Holder

Toyota Prius Plug-in Business Edition Plus specification

Specs: Price New £33,195; Price as tested £33,990; Options Pearlescent paint (£795)

Test Data: Engine 1798cc, petrol, plus dual-motor hybrid assist; Power 120bhp; Torque 105lb ft; Top speed 101mph; 0-62mph 11.1sec; Claimed fuel economy 283mpg; Test fuel economy 96mpg; CO2 22g/km; Faults None; Expenses None

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