Back in the fading years of the earlier millennium, the Toyota Prius was born, becoming the 1st Toyota hybrid. Since then, of course, many other Toyota and Lexus hybrids have hit the roads, as have many from nearly every other automaker. But it’s the Prius—thanks to distinct styling and industry-leading fuel economy—that remains the unofficial green mobile for Toyota and the world.
Naturally, then, the Prius is set to become the 1st Toyota to make the next big leap in fuel effectiveness for 2012 by going plug-in with the new Prius PHV, or “plug-in hybrid vehicle.” And since 2012 is a long way off—in our impatient minds, at least—we jumped at the chance to drive one of the 150 powder-blue preproduction Prius PHVs bound for the U.S. in 2010. All are part of Toyota’s Prius PHV pilot program that places these vehicles with various utilities and government agencies to gather data on vehicle performance.
So how exactly does it differ? Other than silver paint on the mirrors, door handles, and tailgate, the blue-and-white “PLUG-IN HYBRID” lower door decals, and a cutout in the left front fender that houses the plug, there are no visible distinctions between the regular Prius and the PHV. Ditto the interior, where a few PHV-specific info displays and a slightly raised cargo floor for the PHV’s larger battery pack represent the only notable changes.
The Prius PHV doesn’t differ much from the regular Prius from a dynamic standpoint, either. No surprise, really. The Prius PHV is essentially just a Prius whose nickel-metal hydride battery pack has been swapped for a far pricier, far heavier, and far more potent lithium-ion pack. (How potent is unclear, as Toyota won’t tell us how much it improves on the regular car’s 1.3-kWh capacity.) The new batteries can be fully charged in three hours from a simple household 110-volt outlet or an hour and a half from a 220-volt plug. The battery swap allows for more miles on electricity alone and a commensurate boost in real-world fuel economy.
And so the parallel-hybrid powertrain design, the squishy suspension setup, and the puny 15-inch wheels remain, giving the PHV the same lackluster driving characteristics as its non-plug-in sibling. That includes the way-overboosted electric power steering and a brake pedal that has yet to deliver anything close to accuracy.
Going Farther, Faster on Electrons
The most palpable difference between the standard and PHV Priuses, then, is how a judicious right foot can direct the PHV to achieve and maintain speeds of up to 62 mph using electricity alone. Like a regular Prius, though, the PHV will fire up its internal-combustion engine if you’re not careful. The PHV’s threshold is slightly higher than the regular car’s, but anything more than genteel pressure on the go pedal—say, as might be required to enter the freeway or accelerate up a slight hill—and the 98-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder stirs with a decidedly unsexy moan.