Toyota

Do you remember switching from a flip phone to your first smartphone? Thoughts likely ranged from “how does this work?” to “wait, so who is Siri?”, but the overriding feeling was that you had stepped into the future, and it was good. Hopping behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius Plug-in for the first time will likely yield a similar experience.

Toyota has mastered the art of the hybrid and, in doing so, portended the future of our daily commuter car. The combination of refined hybrid powertrain, ergonomically minded interior, and the added benefit of plug-in charging ensures that the Prius will continue its reign as the world’s best hybrid.

Almost a year ago, we reviewed a pre-production Prius Plug-in, citing its range and the negative affects of cold weather on battery performance. Seasonal Affective Disorder apparently extends to batteries, at least for the competition, including the Chevrolet Volt, Ford C-Max Energi, and Nissan Leaf.

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Among this lineup of vehicles, one will instantly recognize the Prius Plug-in’s aerodynamic-jellybean appearance. Toyota promises that the next-generation Prius lineup will have more aggressive styling while maintaining the same optimal coefficient of drag.

There are subtle visual keys that set Prius Plug-in apart from its non-plug-in brethren, but the most notable is the second fuel filler-cap above the rear right wheel. The cap provides access for charging the lithium-ion battery pack. This is the first time lithium-ion has been used in a Prius, andToyota contends that the older, nickel-metal hybrid battery on the standard Prius is ideal for its driving conditions. Lithium-ion, as you may know from your smartphone or laptop, is more suited to frequent battery depletion and charging.

The battery can be charged from a simple 120-volt wall outlet in just three hours, though it will only go 11 miles on pure electric before the gas engine kicks in for combined driving.That range is bested by the all-new Ford C-Max Plug-in’s 15-20 mile EV range, and theVolt’s 38- mile range.Those with very specific driving habits can take full advantage of theVolt, but real-life driving does not always allow for this, and it shows in the combined fuel economy estimates.The EPA has devised a new formula to account for both electric and hybrid driving, called miles per gallon equivalent, or MPGe. The Ford C-Max tops out in this category, with 100 MPGe, followed by theVolt, with 98 MPGe. Though the Prius Plug-in achieves 95 MPGe, the 50-combined-MPG gas-only fuel economy is the best in the group and better accounts for real-world driving.

The Prius also provides a far smoother driving experience than the competition. Lessons learned from bringing hybrids to market, well before Toyota’s American counterparts, yield more seamless gaselectric transitions and far less fuss out of the 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter inline-4 cylinder engine. The net system output of 134 horsepower is adequate, though it will take some getting used to. Much like the small, fuel-efficient econo-boxes from decades past, certain maneuvers on the highway and in busy intersections require a little extra strategizing. The Prius was conceived for fuel economy, not performance, and it will make sure you do not forget it.

Like its iconic exterior design, the interior is instantly recognizable as Prius, rooted in futurist ergonomics. At $32,000, the standard Prius Plug-in is well-outfitted, and includes a navigation system and Toyota’s Entune in-car app platform. Also present in this version of the Prius is the centrally located instrument cluster. At $39,525, the Advanced trim test model featured auto-self-leveling headlights, a JBL premium audio system, and the aforementioned heads-up display. It is viewable on the windshield day or night, and provides readouts for vehicle speed, hybrid status, as well as other functions.

Also part of the package is Bluetooth hands-free calling with wireless streaming audio from your smartphone. Another ingenious feature is the Touch Tracer function, which can sense which steering wheel buttons your thumbs are floating over and presents it on the center dash display. Such features represent an effort by Toyota to improve the driving experience from far more than just a fuel economy standpoint.

Though the Prius Plug-in provides a more refined drivetrain than the competition, both the C-Max and Volt are tight and responsive. The Prius suffers from the effects of the lowrolling resistance tires, combined with a narrow wheelbase, resulting in a floaty feeling in turns at speed. Prius ownership must come with understanding the limitations of the car as much as its well-known benefits.

The Prius Plug-in is as much a vision of the future as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, though all come at it from different angles. Toyota began refining the hybrid equation as far back as the late ’90 s, when American automakers were laughing at the idea. The addition of plug-in capability to the Prius formula represents the future for automobiles, where hybrid powertrains are standard equipment, and multiple power sources are used. The future is here, and it is called the Prius Plug-in.