Plugging Into the Electric Vehicle Revolution
Here’s an affordable plug-in hybrid with curb appeal. Toyota’s enhanced Prius has beefed-up battery capacity, a plug, and 13 miles of all-electric cruising. I tried out the car, and it fit my lifestyle perfectly. Because I work at home, my modest daily mileage was within the car’s range. I rarely used its gas engine, and so achieved an on-paper 100 mpg or better as I cruised at up to 60 mph. As with most plug-in hybrids, this Prius’s performance depends heavily on how you drive it—this car loses most of its advantages on long highway commutes.
Toyota is funny about plug-in hybrids, building them despite the misgivings expressed by some of its own executives. The company’s former chief spokesperson, Irv Miller, told me, “The dog doesn’t hunt. We may be trying to change the world for a very small part of the market.” But despite that, the car hit the showrooms in early 2012 and is selling fairly well—Americans bought more than 12,000 of them last year. It was somewhat under the radar, but it’s selling better than the Nissan Leaf.
The great thing about this battery-enhanced car is that when you run out of electricity it simply reverts to being a standard Prius, which is not a bad thing. But a standard Prius costs $21,000, so is the improved EV cruising range worth approximately $14,000? It would certainly take a lot of short hops to pay down the price premium, but the plug-in hybrid enjoys greener-than-thou bragging rights.
Detroit managed only one significant electrified introduction this year, the Cadillac ELR, and even that was promoted more as a luxury vehicle than a chariot for the eco-minded. But it was easy to see how automakers have effectively absorbed the green lessons. Presenting such rip-roaring performance cars as the Corvette Stingray and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, automakers stressed fuel economy (accomplished through cylinder deactivation, light-weighting, and fuel-saving transmission adjustments). That 470-horsepower Jeep even has an “eco” button.
The entire industry is facing a 2025 deadline to deliver fleet averages of 54.5 mpg in compliance with the federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules, and that means even the strong-selling gas guzzlers have to be reformed. In 2013 few automakers can ignore the need to go green, because that’s clearly where the market is headed amid federal regulation and international concern about climate change.