Toyota Plugs in the Prius

By dancurranjr On December 25th, 2009

AFTER 12 YEARS of speculation and the odd jibe from cynics, Toyota’s Prius is finally getting a plug.

The car that brought hybrid technology to the attention of the mainstream masses has always offered a mix of petrol engine and battery electric power. However, the electric charge has always been created from either spare energy in the engine or recouped through gathering the brake-force energy.

Now, with the third generation of the car – in full family guise – on our roads, Toyota has finally added the option of recharging the battery directly from the mains.

While the additional power source will be available only on 500 prototypes at first, all signs are that Toyota is preparing to roll out the plug-in option to the general public once electricity suppliers and governments get their acts together on providing recharging points.

Of the initial batch, 150 will come to Europe, with 20 destined for the British market. These will be leased to people who will then feed back their views and reports to the development team in Japan.

So what is different from the current Prius? Well, nothing much in terms of the appearance, except for what looks like a secondary filling cap on the front left wing. This is the plug-point for the car. Bootspace is also slightly compromised by the larger battery. And it’s here, under the boot floor, that the most significant changes have been made, with Toyota finally moving to a 5kW/h Panasonic lithium-ion unit.

Lithium is regarded as the future saviour of battery technology for electric cars, allowing more power to be stored for less weight. While this new battery does add 110kg to the car, it’s a worthwhile trade-off in terms of power.

Where the regular hybrid Prius with its nickel-hydride battery can power the car up to 50km/h on electric power for short bursts, the plug-in lithium battery version can reach speeds of 100km/h without needing to call on the petrol engine for support, and the car can run on battery power alone for between 12km and 20km.

Combine the extended speed range and distance and you see that for city or urban driving, this plug-in Prius is effectively an electric car. The big difference is because it’s hybrid, it also offers the chance to call upon a petrol engine for extended range. While we await batteries that can challenge combustion engines for range and the introduction of a proper recharging infrastructure, it’s the best combination on offer.

On a brief test drive we cruised along at 80km/h completely on electric mode and it was only when we floored the accelerator on the test track that the petrol engine kicked in. Lift off slightly and the engine gives way again to electric power.

On the most gentle of obstacle courses we also got the chance to test the car’s handling and though the Prius has never been dynamically enthralling, the added weight of the battery at the back made little difference to its ability.

In terms of recharging, Toyota promises it will fully recharge from the mains in 100 minutes. With a 12km range if you are pushing the car on, you can expect it to cut your fuel bill, particularly for short commuter runs.

If you take that away from an average journey and run the rest of the time on a mix of regular engine and Prius’s current hybrid system, it’s not unrealistic to suggest you could achieve figures in the realms of 70-80mpg. The estimated emissions level of 65g/km will certainly reap rewards in terms of motor tax.

It has been long overdue and admittedly Toyota lost some of the electric buzz to the likes of Opel’s Ampera, which for all the media attention is still a couple of years from delivery.

Mitsubishi will have its fully electric plug-in city car, the i-Miev, on sale in Ireland next year. For now we’ll have to wait and see if any of these plug-in Priuses make it to Ireland under the test programme.

First impressions behind the wheel suggest it will be another string to the Prius’s bow, making a car that remains something of an icon of green motoring even more attractive.

After several months of bad news about recalls and the loss of its leadership in electric car development, it could offer a much-needed boost to the brand, if they can get it into showrooms.

SOURCE: Irish Times

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