Toyota Prius Plug-in review

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Toyota's Prius is best known as the nation's favourite self-charging full-Hybrid model. But it's also long been available in Plug-in form too. Jonathan Crouch drives it.

Ten Second Review

These days, Toyota is ramping up its full-EV offensive but very first plug-in Toyota was a hybrid, the Prius Plug-in, initially launched in 2012, then introduced in this second generation form in 2015 with an update three years later. It's proved to be a very credible contender in the growing market for plug-in hybrid models and can in this form run up to 34 miles on pure electric power (more than twice as far as the first generation model), with EV power up by 83% over that original car thanks to a more sophisticated Dual Motor Drive System. It's the faintly unbelievable WLTP-rated figures though, that could sell you on this car: fancy up to 235.4mpg on the combined cycle and up to 28g/km of CO2? Thought so.

Background

Perhaps the reason we don't necessarily associate Toyota with PHEVs is that the company's initial contender in this class, the first generation 'XW30'-series version of this Prius Plug-in launched back in 2012, was so relatively uncompetitive. Not only was it prohibitively expensive but it would only at best travel around 15 miles on all-electric power. Not good enough. So Toyota went away and in 2016, came up with something better in the form of this far more competitive second generation version.

This MK2 model immediately matched the class standard for all-electric driving range, doubling its potential EV distance to 34 miles and developing far more power from its larger lithium-ion battery thanks to technological improvements in three key areas: battery development, maximised EV driving performance and increased battery recharging speed. The car also handled better and looked far smarter with its second generation Prius styling. Toyota gave it a few more upgrades in 2018 to make it safer and better connected, which has created the car we're going to test here.

Driving Experience

Though like an ordinary Prius, this Prius Plug-in pulls away silently on all-electric battery power, it does of course go miles further before the engine kicks in, thanks to an 8.8kWh battery which can be recharged from the mains. That adds a bit of extra weight of course, but fortunately the bulk has been mounted very low down in the vehicle, which helps keep an admirably low centre of gravity and means that handling is more engaging than you might expect. Via buttons on the centre stack, you can switch between hybrid (HV) and all-electric (EV) drive modes. For 'HV' use, there's a further 'Battery Charge' setting, which uses the engine to generate electricity to charge the battery. And in 'EV', you can switch to a further 'EV City' setting that assists with urban frugality. Got all that? If you have, you'll now be ready to learn about and use the three on-demand drive modes that work via a third button - there are three settings, 'Normal', 'Power' and 'Eco'.

All-electric driving range is rated at around 34 miles, though of course you won't get anything like that if you start to really use the increased EV power of this MK2 model. This rose by 83% compared to the original design thanks to a more sophisticated Dual Motor Drive System that boosts the total hybrid system output to a still rather modest 120bhp. Still, that's enough to develop better acceleration than you might expect from a Prius (62mph is 11.1s away) and performance that's slightly more engaging (though top speed is limited to a modest 101mph). You might find the handling to be more engaging than expected too, thanks to this second generation design's use of Toyota's New Global Architecture platform. This stiffer set-up reduces body roll and improves refinement.

Design and Build

Toyota decided to make this Plug-in Prius look a little different to its self-charging showroom stablemate. At the front, changes to this PHEV variant include prominent acrylic grille treatment flanked by thin, ultra-compact four-LED adaptive headlamp units. The rear's also a little different, the cross-sectional shape of the "double-bubble" rear screen is carried into the curve of the rear spoiler. LED rear light clusters are integrated in the extremities of that spoiler, with strips that flow towards the central Toyota badge. In profile the changes are less easy to spot, the Prius Plug-in distinguished by its longer rear overhang, lower cowl and rear spoiler heights and model-specific, two-tone 15-inch alloy wheels, designed to provide extra brake cooling.

Inside, there are fewer changes over the standard Prius, though the dual 4.2-inch TFT meter in the revised instrument panel features PHV-specific graphics. Otherwise, the dash is very similar, with a clear structural arrangement of layered information which places the driver's meters at a distance and the displays closer at hand. A large eight-inch infotainment screen dominates the centre of the fascia. The front seats too, are shared with the conventional Prius, offering improved cushion comfort to reduce driver fatigue.

In the rear there's seating for three - which we only make a point of saying because earlier versions of this second generation model inconveniently only gave you two seats separated by a centre console. Out back, you've to make a few compromises for the PHEV tech. This was the first mass-production car to be fitted with a CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced plastic) tailgate and once you raise it, you'll find that the luggage deck has had to be raised by 160mm to accommodate the larger plug-in hybrid system. The result of course is that load space volume falls over an ordinary Prius - by 142-litres to a total of 360-litres. But that kind of compromise is par for the course with Plug-in hybrids.

Market and Model

Expect to pay quite a premium for Prius Plug-in motoring over what you'd have to find over the conventional self-charging Hybrid version of this car. We're talking around nearly £6,000. Also making this PHEV variant look expensive is the fact that it only comes in the two plushest levels of Prius trim - 'Business Edition Plus' and 'Excel'. What it all means is that at the time of this test in late 2021, Toyota was asking just under £33,000 for this 'Business Edition Plus' Plug-in model - and around £2,000 more than that for the top 'Excel' variant.

At least the car will come very well equipped for that kind of money, with nearly all the executive toys you would want. The key changes made to this improved model lie with the addition of 'Lane Trace Assist' to the car's standard portfolio of 'Safety Sense' active safety and driver assistance systems. 'Lane Trace Assist' operates with the full-range 'Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control' system, helping the driver keep the car centred in its traffic lane. Using the forward-facing camera and millimetre-wave radar, it monitors lane markings on the road surface. If it detects any unintended deviations, it will provides gentle steering inputs to keep the car to its correct course, both on straight roads and through curves. If the markings are faded or obscured, it will follow the path of the vehicle ahead.

This Prius Plug-in also gets 'Apple CarPlay'/'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring (at last); and owners can use the Toyota 'MyT' app. This incorporated eCall to provide an automatic alert to the emergency services in the event of a serious impact. Other 'MyT' app features include useful information about Toyota, service alerts, "find my car" vehicle location, journey planning and coaching on how to achieve the best eco-driving performance. MyT also logs driving data, so information about mileage, speed and performance from previous journeys can be accessed and analysed.

Cost of Ownership

If you've had a cup of hot, sweet tea to recover from the asking price of the Prius Plug-in, the rest of this section may well help with its restorative effect. As with other plug-in vehicles, quoting a miles per gallon figure for the Prius is largely academic, because in certain scenarios the figure is effectively infinite. Toyota has nevertheless jumped through the hoops of the WLTP test and quotes a combined cycle figure of up to 235.4mpg for this Prius. The emissions figure of up to 28g/km is also open to a bit of debate, but it spells huge tax savings, so who's arguing? Insurance is group 20E.

What about charging? Well, the car comes with two different types of charging cable: one with an ordinary three-pin plug and another Type 2 cable that's compatible with home wallboxes and public charging points. The car takes around four hours to charge its 8.8kWh PHEV battery from an ordinary domestic socket, while a wallbox cuts this to around two-and-a-half hours thanks to the Prius' 3.3kW charging capability.

Summary

Plug-in hybrid technology clearly isn't the future of motoring, but it's proved to be an important step along the way. Of course, if we had a better public charging infrastructure, there'd be no need for it - you'd step instead straight into a full-EV, like Toyota's own Bz4x. But right at present - and for a good few years to come - we don't really have a highway and city centre charging infrastructure that makes easy lengthier journeys in a full-electric vehicle. And all the time that's the case, there'll be a real market for PHEVs like this one.

But would you buy this one? We can see why you might want to stretch to it if you're a committed Prius fan and were looking at an upper-spec model anyway. Conquest sales from other brands though have proved harder for Toyota with this car. But if you're in this market - maybe looking at one of the various Golf-sized VW Group plug-in hatches - it's well worth considering this Japanese design too. Instead of being merely a conventional car with an unconventional design, it feel more purpose-built towards the goal of greener motoring an ultimate frugality - and there are lots more tools here to help you achieve it.

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