What's New for 2012
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid is an all-new variant of the standard Prius. For this year, it's only being sold in select states; nationwide availability begins in 2013.
You know a technology movement has arrived when it spawns its own catchphrase. For electric vehicles, "range anxiety" -- the phrase that accompanies most reporting on the subject -- may represent the largest obstacle to mainstream acceptance. Plug-in hybrids, like the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, skirt this issue by taking established hybrid technology and embellishing it with pure electric drive. In theory, it's the best of both worlds: full electric propulsion to minimize gasoline consumption, and a time-tested fuel burner that kicks in when the electrons run out.
The new Prius Plug-In is essentially a standard Prius with recharge-at-home capability and a lithium-ion battery pack that offers higher capacity and improved efficiency over the nickel-metal hydride array in the standard Prius. One advantage for the Prius Plug-In is a fast recharge time: about 3 hours on a standard 120-volt home outlet, says Toyota, or half that time on a larger 240-volt outlet. A 24-foot cable charger is included, and there's also an optional third-party home charging solution.
But the Prius Plug-In Hybrid trails its main competitor, the Chevrolet Volt, on a significant count: electric range. Thanks to its much larger battery pack, the Volt can regularly exceed 40 miles on battery power alone. Toyota says the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, by contrast, can only travel up to 15 miles before its battery is depleted. Also, the Prius' all-electric mode is only good for up to 62 mph, whereas the Volt can stay all-electric for much faster speeds.
These are notable shortfalls if you're considering a plug-in hybrid, particularly if the all-electric mode is the main draw for you. Nor does the Prius cost significantly less -- it has a cheaper base price, but the Volt is eligible for a larger federal tax credit. Then again, the Prius Plug-In potentially outshines the Volt in hybrid mode fuel economy. Toyota claims the Prius Plug-In achieves 49 mpg when driven primarily by its gas engine (with some electric assistance through regenerative braking). The Volt, by the same measure, averages about 33 mpg.
Deciding which one you want will likely come down to your desires and what kind of driving you normally do. But if you make a lot of very short trips and like the idea of reducing your fuel costs with at-home plug-in capability, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In should work out well.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In is available in Base and Advanced body styles.
Standard equipment on the base model includes 15-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, LED taillights, keyless entry/ignition, cruise control, full power accessories, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, automatic climate control, heated front seats, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, Bluetooth (phone and audio streaming), a back-up camera, a navigation system, voice recognition and a six-speaker sound system featuring a touchscreen display, a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack, an iPod/USB interface and satellite and HD radio. Toyota's new Entune smartphone and Web integration system is also standard.
The Prius Plug-In Advanced adds automatic LED headlights, foglamps, unique exterior styling treatment, adaptive cruise control, upgraded seat upholstery, an eight-way power driver seat (with power lumbar), an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a head-up display, more Entune capabilities and a premium eight-speaker JBL sound system with a larger touchscreen display.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In is powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine combined with a pair of electric motor/generators. Together they send a total 134 horsepower to the front wheels through a specialized continuously variable transmission (CVT). The battery pack features advanced lithium-ion technology and has more capacity (4.4 kWh) than that in the regular Prius', though total capacity is still much less than that of the Volt and Nissan Leaf.
In Edmunds testing, a prototype Prius Plug-In accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 10.1 seconds, the same time as the regular Prius. Toyota says the Prius Plug-In will achieve 49 highway mpg and drive up to 15 miles on battery power alone.
Every 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid comes with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags, a driver knee airbag, full-length side curtain airbags and hill start assist. The Advanced has an additional pre-collision warning system.
In Edmunds brake testing, a prototype Prius Plug-In stopped from 60 mph in 130 feet, an average result for the class and 12 feet short of the conventional (and lighter) Prius hybrid.
The Prius Plug-In Hybrid has not officially been tested in government crash tests. However, the regular Prius received a top overall crash rating of five stars, with five stars awarded for side impact testing and four stars for frontal crash protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the regular Prius a top rating of "Good" for its frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In features straightforward climate and audio controls that arc out toward the driver in a "floating console" configuration that offers a storage space underneath. It's a slightly futuristic design that also serves to maximize cabin space. The digital instrument panel also features a floating layer that displays audio, temperature and trip computer information when the driver touches those controls on the steering wheel, minimizing eye movement. Some drivers might find the overall design a bit too busy-looking, however.
New for 2012 is Toyota's new Entune suite of smartphone-connected services that includes features like the Bing search engine, Pandora streaming radio, real-time traffic, sports and stock information, and the ability to reserve movie tickets or a table at a restaurant on the go.
Materials quality in the Prius Plug-In is disappointing, however, with harder and cheaper plastics than other cars in its price range. We'll cut the Prius a small measure of slack, as the plastic material is plant-derived and uses less petroleum in the production process. For many buyers, however, that concession to eco-consciousness won't cut it against others with nicer interiors.
The Prius is still a versatility champ, though. The hatchback body style provides 21.6 cubic feet of cargo volume with the rear seats up, and rear seat passengers will enjoy plenty of legroom. Taller drivers will still have to contend with a steering wheel that's placed too far away, despite a telescoping column, as it doesn't extend nearly far enough.
We haven't driven the new 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid yet, but a prototype we drove felt heavier in the back than a conventional Prius. Pushing the Plug-In through quick, tight corners yielded a pendulum effect that the car's stability control gently reined in. Toyota says the production Prius Plug-In uses a smaller battery pack (installed under the rear luggage area) that offers increased range at half the weight.
But no one buys a Prius expecting it to turn fast corners. What the Prius does best, aside from delivering exceptional fuel economy, is provide a hyper-quiet cabin and comfortable ride. Acceleration is on par for a hybrid: far from quick, but plenty for most drivers.