AURORA | Sometimes the nerd wins.
It’s hard to believe that the world won’t see more hybrid cars in the future. I believe hybrids are a fad like the Internet is a fad, or that hybrids will come and go with the Obama administration.
So far, the summer of 2012 hasn’t quite been like the past five summers. Meaning, gas prices haven’t spiked to one-fifth of the U.S. GDP for a gallon of gas. I imagine if they had rocketed up that high — speculation is down, refineries are working and the Middle East hasn’t been all that Middle Easternly so far — we’d be talking a lot more about cars like the 2012 Prius Plug-in.
And for starters, this car isn’t a mainstream car.
At $32,000 to start, it’s $7,000 more than a Prius liftback and a whole lot more than the super-popular Prius c at the moment.
Second, with two “gas tanks” and one plug, the Prius Plug-in might evoke the same kinds of stares reserved for the faces of Labrador retrievers while looking at ceiling fans.
Much like the Prius Plug-in’s name would imply, this egg-shaped mobile can run on free-flowing gasoline or electrons — you pick. It’s a departure for the Prius because in the past, while you’ve been able to run on electricity alone under a certain speed (20 mph) for short distances (a few hundred meters at most), the Prius Plug-in can run up to 15 miles on batteries alone before switching to hybrid mode.
As an engineering exercise, the Prius Plug-in is interesting because it represents Hybrid 2.0. Taken to its next logical conclusion, plug-in hybrids are likely the next stop for many hybrid owners as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and are forced to conform to higher mileage requirements.
Fuel economy depends almost entirely on how heavy your foot is and how far you have to travel to work.
In and around the city, the Prius Plug-in manages its 15-mile range relatively easily. It might seem counterintuitive, but hybrids perform better in the city than on the highway where traditional combustion engines run at optimal fuel economy. In stop-and-go traffic, hybrids like the Prius shut off their motors at stoplights, and its regenerative braking recoups some of the energy used to accelerate while slowing down. In a normal gasoline car, say, energy used to accelerate is converted into motion and heat, and conversely, braking converts that energy from motion back into heat through your brakes.
Call it Newton’s Fifth Law of Thermodynamics: Money, when applied to rush hour and gasoline, will burn holes through your pockets.
So the Prius Plug-in performs famously in the cities. And that’s what you should buy it for.
On the highway, a Toyota engineer said it best: “I don’t care how good your battery is, anything over 55 mph is going to drain the battery like nobody’s business.”
Which is true. When left on electricity only, I’m guessing the Prius averages about one-half to two-thirds of the 15-mile range on the highway.
Sure, it’s possible to travel from Aurora to Englewood on Tesla’s juice alone, but you wouldn’t have enough for the return trip on electricity alone.
Thankfully, there’s an internal combustion engine that offers 20 times the range that the battery packs do for people who live in, you know, the real world.
Also, the Prius Plug-in allows you to dictate when you want to run on electricity or hybrid without draining the battery. Other cars — I’m looking at you, Volt — don’t allow you to pick and choose which.
When running on dinosaur juice, the Prius acts like a normal hybrid, running on gas and electricity together to optimize fuel economy. In hybrid mode, you’re likely to average around a 45-mpg clip in combined driving, which is darn good for any car on the road nowadays.
As a money-saving exercise, the Prius Plug-in becomes a little tougher to justify.
Yes, you can charge the car for pennies (about 4 hours on a 220-volt plug) off peak hours. But considering most automakers — including Toyota themselves — offer 40+ mpg cars at $10,000 less to start, my guess is it’ll take you upwards of forever-and-a-day to recoup the cost of buying the Plug-in Prius.
Consider these wild-cards first: The federal government offers up to $2,500 back for buying a Prius Plug-in right now. Also, state governments like Colorado’s offer thousands more to buy the same cars. That means a Plug-in Prius can be knocked down into the high $20,000s with the right combination of incentives.
Also, these cars will likely hold onto their resale value much longer than others considering the cost of one gallon of gasoline is likely to be half your paycheck in two years.
Is it worth the 7,000 bucks over the cost of a hybrid to buy a plug-in hybrid? Depends on your type of driving.
I guess that’s really just up to you, Poindexter.
Reach editor Aaron Cole at 303-750-7555 or at firstname.lastname@example.org