Toyota Prius Plug-In hybrid — Is it worth the extra cost?

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It's the iconic hybrid car, the first to combine a traditional gasoline engine with an electric motor powered by a battery pack. Since it hit U.S. showrooms in 2000, Toyota has very successfully advanced the hybrid hatchback Prius in performance, style and fuel efficiency, and it lives on today in various iterations.

To further add to Prius choices is a plug-in version, which first appeared as a 2012 model. It adds between 10 and 15 mostly electric gas-free miles to the driving experience before the engine kicks in to provide battery charging. The problem is that the Prius Plug-in has the same mpg rating as the standard model after the initial charge is drained, but commands several thousand dollars more. If driving habits involve no more than 10-to-20-mile jaunts every day, the plug-in model might pay off — eventually.

Due to slow sales and increased competition, Toyota has cut the base price for 2014 by $2,010. The up-level Advanced model has been cut $4,620, but the effective adjustment is only two grand because some formerly standard features have become options. The standard Prius equipped similarly to the Plug-In version lists for just under $27,000 including destination charge. The Plug-in Prius starts at just under $31,000.

The Prius is one of the most fuel-efficient non-electric cars on the planet without the extra juice — and the extra cost — EPA-rated at 51 mpg city, 48 highway and 50 combined. Here's the thing. We drove the plug-in without benefit of a charge and realized a rather astounding 53 mpg over 240 miles, according to the car's computer. If the computer was right, that's just about as good as it gets, plug-in or not.

If you do plug-in, the Prius takes only about three hours to recharge on 120 current. Figure about half that time on 240. But even when on full electric power, a heavy right foot or speeds over 60 mph will activate the gas engine.

The difference between the standard Prius and the plug-in model is the battery pack. The standard Prius gets a 1.3 kWh nickel-metal hydride battery, while the plug-in is outfitted with 4.4 kWh lithium-ion pack. There are no changes to the 90-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine or the 80-horsepower electric motor. Total effective horsepower remains at 134.

There's no change in performance, either, between the standard and plug-in models, which is measured at a very sedate 9.9 seconds from 0-to-60 and 17.4 seconds at 79.7 mph in the quarter mile mated to a continuously variable transmission. Full disclosure — we had no problem pushing away from stop lights, merging into fast traffic or passing on a two-lane highway. Toyota has done a good job balancing real-world performance with optimum gas mileage.

For the most part, handling is competent, the ride is okay and parking lot maneuverability is noteworthy with a very tight 34.2-feet turning circle. But be forewarned, if you get too frisky on the twists and turns, you will quickly realize the Prius is designed as frugal transportation, not for spirited driving.

The interior is designed with a "floating console" that offers a storage tray underneath. A standard touchscreen operates most of the features, at times difficult to read, and Toyota's Entune infotainment system is standard equipment. Even after all these years we still haven't become full subscribers to the offset speedometer and driving information screen that sits in the middle of the dashboard. The biggest letdown is the continued use of hard plastics and cheap-looking materials in the cabin.

Useable passenger and cargo space is not a letdown. The Prius is spacious with ample room in the second row for two full-sized adults, and 21.6 cubic feet of cargo behind the seats. With the rear seatbacks folded, hauling capacity increases to 40 cubic feet.

The base Prius Plug-in comes with a long list of standard equipment for the 30 grand price tag including keyless entry and ignition, full power accessories, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, heated front seats, hill start assist, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, rearview camera, navigation system, a six-speaker audio with iPod/USB plugs and satellite and HD radio, and Toyota's Entune smartphone Web integration system.

The Plug-In Prius is virtually identical to the standard edition except for the plug-in aspect. However, we don't think the extra four to five grand commanded by the Plug-In is worth the extra cost, and the recovery period will probably be longer than the average ownership. Save the cash and enjoy the 50 miles per gallon the standard Prius will deliver.

Base price: $30,750; as driven, $31,189
Engine: 1.8 liter, 4-cylinder; electric motor
Horsepower: 134 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 105 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 176.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,165 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 21.6 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 40 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 10.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 95 MPGe electric; 51 city, 48 highway gas
0-60: 9.9 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford Fusion Energi, Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid, Chevrolet Volt

The Good
• Outstanding fuel economy
• Excellent passenger and cargo room
• Comfortable ride

The Bad
• Much more expensive than standard version
• Slow acceleration

The Ugly
• Cheap-looking interior materials