2011 Toyota Prius: PLUGIN-HYBRID

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Plug-in Prius bumper sticker: My Car Is Probably Destroying The Planet More Slowly Than Your Car.
Plug-in Prius bumper sticker: My Car Is Probably Destroying The Planet More Slowly Than Your Car.

WHEN THIS Prius arrived, I was looking forward to savaging it in print—the car that burns so little gas because we hate driving it, etc., etc.—when I noticed something odd: an electrical socket on the left front flank.

Just to drive home the point, Toyota also stuck decals on it that no one could miss: PLUG-IN HYBRID. Coiled up in the trunk was a hefty cable with a three-prong wall plug on one end, a special Prius plug on the other, and a transformer box inbetween.

This is not your ordinary gas-electric hybrid. I plugged it in, then went to the meter on the house, expecting to see the little wheel whirling madly and emitting smoke. Nope. My clothes dryer spins it faster.

Unplugging the car to run errands and then hooking it up again at home turns out to be no bother. It’s like tying up your horse. Recharged, which takes three or four hours, the car will make it to my gym and halfway back before the gas engine kicks in. That’s about 12 miles at speeds from a neighborhood dawdle to 50 mph, with a long uphill on the return trip. Running errands on a topped-up battery, from the library to the post office to the market, didn’t use a drop of dinosaur squash. A week of this sort of driving, averaging 23 MPH, consumed less than two gallons of gas for a claimed 84.1 MPG in 65% all-electric driving. A dash on the interstate, however, would suck down the electrons right away and push gas consumption to 35 to 40 mpg.

In this pre-production mule, Toyota has rejiggered the computer to let the battery drain to about a quarter-charge before the 1.8-liter four-banger wakes up, to spin the generator and help turn the front wheels. They’ve also swapped out the nickel-metal-hydride powerpack for a heavier, more powerful and costly lithium-ion type, so when a plug-in model hits dealerships this year, it’s going to cost more than the standard Prius.

Unfortunately, save for fuel usage, it’s not going to drive any better. The steering is still spookily light, the accelerator pedal feels like it’s on rubber bands, the energy-recovering brakes are anybody’s guess, and there is no handling or speed to speak of. A Prius is like a small airplane, built as lightly as possible; creeping along under e-power, you’ll hear any squeak or rattle. About the only fun you can have in this vehicle is sneaking up on people in crosswalks. Which really points up the need for some noise source, to warn pedestrians. (There is a beep-beep-beep backup alarm—but it’s audible only inside the car. What’s the point? I know I’m backing up. In fact, it’s easy to mistake this for a parking sensor.)

Calculating the environmental impact or even the economics of owning one of these things is beyond me, but as long as our national energy policy remains “Hey, what’s our oil doing under their sand?” Toyota will earn market share with its expanding Prius family. (Never mind that a simple but well-designed turbodiesel car can go farther on the same or less fuel.) As a plug-in, the Prius begins to make sense, especially if this first one is a stepping stone to even smarter cars. I think.