Toyota Prius Plug-in review
Advanced new batteries make the Prius Plug-in the most efficient hybrid model in the Toyota range
Toyota has responded to the challenge of the latest range-extending electric cars by boosting the battery range of the Prius. To help it take on the Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera, the Prius Plug-in is fitted with the latest lithium-ion batteries to increase the EV range from one or two miles to around 15 miles on a single charge. This has also increased the price so to ensure that buyers still get value for money, the Plug-in is based on the top spec T Spirit model so it comes with luxuries like heated seats, climate control and a touchscreen sat-nav as standard. It also returns incredible economy and emissions figures, which means it's the cheapest version of the Prius to run and the best choice for company car buyers, too.
Our choice: Prius Plug-in 5dr CVT auto
Despite costing a lot more than the standard Prius, the Plug-in model looks almost indentical from the outside. The most obvious difference is that is has two filler caps (one for petrol and one for electricity), but ther's also a few subtle badges on the wings and the boot lid, plus some extra chrome trim underneath the grille. Like all Prius models, the 15-inch alloy wheels get plastic aerodynamic covers and there's a huge spoiler running across the back window to make sure the car is as slippery as possible. The lack of conventional dials and large windscreen make it feel especially spacious. A wide centre console and stubby gearlever are carried over from the standard model, but the textured plastics feel hard and scratchy to the touch. This means that despite its generous equipment levels, the Plug-in feels a bit cheap.
By using a lithium-ion battery pack, Toyota has extended the electric range of the Prius to a maximum of 15.5 miles on a full charge. This means that at low speeds and in town, the electric motor alone powers you around and in EV mode progress is smooth and silent. There's also a 'hold' mode accessed via a button on the dash that allows you to use hybrid power on the motorway and save the batteries for when you reach the city centre. However once the 1.8-litre petrol engine starts, the noisy CVT gearbox spoils refinement and you have to work the car hard just to keep pace with traffic. The ride is also quite firm and jittery over rough surfaces, yet the body still leans heavily in corners. The light controls mean that the Prius Plug-in is easy to drive but keen drivers will get more enjoyment from alternatives like the Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt.
Toyota as a brand finished fifth overall in the 2012 Driver Power reliability survey, while the standard Mk3 Prius came a very impressive seventh, with an overall satisfaction rating of 88.81 per cent. The lithium-ion batteries are something of an unknown quantity, but all the other major components have been tried and tested for years. If any problems do arise, then the Prius is covered by a standard five-year, 100,000-mile warranty. Safety is also very good, with the latest version of the standard Prius earning a full five-star rating from Euro NCAP when it was first tested in 2009. Seven airbags are included as standard (including one for the driver's knees), as well as traction and stability control.
The new batteries are the same size as before, which means that the Prius Plug-in is just as practical as the standard car. This means a 443-litre boot that includes a dedicated area for stowing the electric charging cable. Fold down the rear seats and this increases to an impressive 1,120 litres, but the light fabric of the boot lining is easy to mark. On the inside, there's lots of storage and a clever double-layer glovebox means there's plenty of space for loose items in the cabin. Passengers will find it spacious in the back, too, although headroom is a little tight. The spoiler across the back window affects rear visibility and the small rear wiper fails to clear much water when its raining.
The Plug-in is a lot more expensive than the standard Prius but it also benefits from the £5,000 government grant for electric cars and should offer very low running costs, too. Toyota claims it can return average fuel economy of 134.5mpg and C02 emissions of just 49g/km, so like all Prius models it's free to tax. Charging the batteries takes just 90 minutes and as long as you can charge it at home and at work, then the Plug-in does offer the possibility of an tailpipe-emissions-free commute. But if you plan on doing lots of motorway miles, than a conventional diesel would still be much more efficient than the heavy Prius, as when it's running in normal hybrid mode at cruising speeds it will only manage around 48-50mpg.