2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Preview

Front 3/4 view of blue 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid driving
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid.

And TireKicker's unofficial "Green Week" (yesterday, the Nissan Leaf, Tuesday the Chevrolet Volt) continues with a car you can't buy yet. In fact, you can't even put in an order yet.

The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid goes on sale sometime in spring of 2012 in  Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. The rest of the country waits until sometime in 2013. Orders won't be taken until late this year, but Toyota, which has been running a demonstration program of 600 Prius Plug-Ins for the last couple of years, has begun putting examples into the hands of automotive journalists, and that got us a week at the wheel.

Detail shot of 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid power port
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid's plug-in port.

Apart from the decal along the bottom of the doors reading "Plug-In Hybrid", that little door in the left front fender is the only obvious difference between a regular Prius and the plug-in. The Priuses on the street the past decade don't need to be plugged in. The batteries aren't allowed to drain fully and recharge through braking and other regenerative activity.

Detail shot of charging the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid
Charging the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid.

So what's the point of the Plug-In? Well, the standard Prius has extremely limited capabilities running on purely electric power...get above 25 miles per hour and the gasoline engine kicks in. Drive at most one mile on electricity alone, and the same thing happens.

The Prius Plug-In will operate in EV (electric vehicle) mode "under certain conditions" up to "near freeway speeds" for "approximately 10-15 miles".

Detail shot of 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid range meter
The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid's range indicator.

That's a lot of maybes, but it does allow people going short distances at city street and freeway speeds to do it (under certain conditions) without using gasoline. And you have the gasoline engine when the battery decides the party's over.

Because the battery isn't being asked to propel the car for 35 miles like the Volt, or 100 miles like the Leaf (both those are manufacturer estimates...under certain conditions), the Prius Plug-In Hybrid needs less recharging time. And this is likely to be a big selling point. Both the Volt and Leaf need 14 hours (give or take) to fully recharge a drained battery on 120V household current. Toyota says the Prius Plug-In will do it in 3 hours. And if you use a 240V charger, that drops to an hour and a half.

With at least 60 days to go before orders are taken (maybe longer) and perhaps six months or more before the first owners take delivery, it's too soon to come to conclusions about the Prius Plug-In, its usefulness, and where it will fit in a rapidly growing field of alternative vehicle. Will the limits of its pure electric operation be too much of a compromise for green buyers? Or will its either/or concept and the promise of quick recharge be a game-changer?