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August 17, 2012

Driving the Plug-In Prius

Prius_city_hall3

When I first heard about Toyota's plans for the plug-in Prius, I remember thinking, "What kind of customer would buy a plug-in car that has such a short electric range of 11-15 miles?" Then, as I thought about it, I realized this car actually fits my family's needs to a T.

We're a one-car family (except for a brief period right now). On most week days, we drive under 10 miles around our home city of Cambridge, MA (where we often walk or take the train or bus). However, we couldn't justify buying a full battery electric and renting or car-sharing a gas-powered vehicle on the occasions when we needed one (as would work for many families), given that we take our two kids on upwards of 20 long-distance highway trips each year to visit family throughout New England.

I just love my new plug-in Prius. In a recent blog post, I described how I came to the decision that this car was absolutely the right one for us, but other plug-ins are better choices for many other people. Like all EVs, our car is quiet, smooth, and much gentler to the planet than our last car. My daughters love telling their friends about driving electric, and they have fun plugging it in and listening to the Sirius XM radio stations. My neighbors ask about the car.

I'm thrilled that almost all of our local city driving miles are electric -- with no gas or tailpipe emissions (see here for information on electric vehicle emissions). After its electric charge is gone, it is like a regular 50-mpg Prius -- giving us the oil and emissions savings for our long highway trips that we sought.

Plug_in_prius_with_family

When I first start my car after a full charge, it gives me an estimated number of miles I can go on electricity. For a while, each morning it told me about 11.3 miles. Now, it's usually about 12.5. When I asked Toyota's Product Communications Specialist David Lee how the car comes to this estimate, he said that the car's computer system is basing this number on my recent driving patterns -- how many hills we encounter, whether we're using the heat or AC, and how efficiently my husband and I drive -- like how gently we accelerate and brake. I think it's great that Toyota is encouraging people like me with type A personalities to strive for more efficient driving.

If we stop suddenly, go up a really steep hill, or drive over 62 miles per hour, the plug-in Prius does rely on a bit of oil. Given that our long-distance highway driving is in hybrid and not EV mode, the only time I've noticed this occurring was when I once had to slam on the brakes when someone veered into my lane (embarrassingly, I think my gut reaction was, "Not my new car!" and not something about my safety). The reason I knew I had burned a bit of oil was that when I arrived at my destination, instead of the normal 999 mpg equivalent estimate that the car told me I had driven, it told me a slightly lower number, which was still many times better than a non-plug-in Prius trip would have been.

I haven't yet driven the car in winter, so I'll be interested to see how the cold may or may not affect the charge time (currently about three hours) and my available electric miles. My neighbors who drive a first-gen Prius said that their old car gets much lower mpg in the cold weather. I asked Toyota's David Lee about this, and he said, "We've reduced the time needed to get the engine to warm up on a cold morning....This will help enhance overall fuel economy a bit… [and] make the driver comfortable a bit quicker too."

Because there was no electricity outlet next to our driveway, we hired an electrician to install a regular 110 volt weatherproof outlet on the outside of our home for under $300. The most efficient time for EV drivers to charge their vehicles is at off-peak late night/early morning hours. For the plug-in Prius and most other plug-ins, you can program your vehicle to charge at the time of your choosing. For the advanced model of the plug-in Prius (ours is basic), you can even use a special smart phone app to program when to charge, check your state of charge, and remotely start the AC.

Prius_city_hall2

Though we almost always charge at home, I've been noticing a growing number of public charging spots around the Boston area, including a few in front of Boston City Hall and now one in front of Cambridge City Hall -- conveniently across the street from where my daughter attends pre-school.

As of the end of July, Toyota had sold 5,021 plug-in Prii since they first went on sale in just over a dozen states in February of this year. The recent monthly sales have been higher than those of the fully electric Nissan Leaf and significantly lower than the extended range electric Chevy Volt. In early 2013, Toyota plans to start selling the plug-in Prius in all U.S. states.

Toyota's Public Affairs Manager Cindy Knight told me that her company views these early plug-in Prius sales numbers as "good but not fantastic." She said that she believes incentives like the HOV lane access available to plug-in Prius drivers in California have helped, but Toyota is competing among a small early pool of plug-in customers. Knight says she thinks it will take some time for consumers to learn about this new technology, but that all the new plug-in brands on the market are building collective awareness about EVs.

Knight, like other automaker representatives with whom I've met, says that the majority of their early plug-in customers are drawn to the vehicles because of all the exciting technological features. For my family, it was environmental concerns that drew us to the car, but I'm hoping that plug-in vehicle marketing teams will do all they can to seek customers who appreciate amazing new technology.

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club’s Director of Green Fleets & Electric Vehicles Initiative

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