2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In review:

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In

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Starting at $32,000
  • Trim levels Base
  • Available Engine Hybrid
  • Body style Hatchback

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.7 Overall
  • Cabin tech 8
  • Performance tech 10
  • Design 8

The Good The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in delivers the same stellar fuel economy as the standard model, but with the capability to further boost efficiency by being plugged in. The smartphone-connected Entune system brings live destination search, traffic data, and Pandora streaming to the dashboard. Voice command tech and intuitive steering-wheel controls help to keep eyes on the road.

The Bad The infotainment system locks the user out of most navigation and calling functions while the vehicle is in motion. The car's touch screen is prone to bad glare with a minimal amount of sunlight, and too many warning screens pop up when you try to use Entune.

The Bottom Line The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in vastly improves the flexibility and potential economy of the standard Prius formula with the simple addition of a power cable and larger, more efficient battery pack.

We've already seen the 2012 Toyota Prius. In fact, we've seen it twice. The Prius liftback that silently glided into the Car Tech Garage this week doesn't differ very much from the 2012 Prius model that we reviewed just a few weeks ago, which itself hadn't changed dramatically since the 2010 model that we reviewed a few years ago.

However, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in is no ordinary Prius. Before slapping on the "Plug-in" badge, Toyota bumped up the size of the Prius' battery pack for increased range under pure electric power, added the capability to recharge that bigger battery by plugging the hybrid into any 120-volt outlet, and reprogrammed the EV driving mode to take advantage of the new electric-only range.

But in a world where the Chevrolet Volt gets 40 miles of emissions-free driving per charge, how much of a difference can the Plug-in Prius' measly 13 miles of electric range really make at the pump? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Plug it in, plug it in
The whole reason that you pay the extra dough for the Prius Plug-in is, well, to plug it in occasionally to gain a few extra miles of electric driving. The 2012 Plug-in's battery pack is larger than that of the standard Prius, but it's also more advanced. The new battery is a 4.4kWh lithium ion array, while the standard model has a 1.3kWh nickel metal hydride battery pack. You can fully charge that battery pack with a 3-hour charge from any 120-volt outlet. If you can find a public, standard 240-volt SAE J1772 charging station or have one installed in your home, that charge time drops to 1.5 hours.

The J1772 plug is located on the passenger side of the vehicle.

Josh Miller/CNET

Toyota's press materials claim that you can squeeze 15 miles of electric driving out of a full charge, the Plug-in's own trip computer estimated 12.8 miles, and the EPA reckons you'll only get 11. Your EV range should fall somewhere between those numbers. The Plug-in defaults to a full-electric operating mode when its battery is fully or partially charged. Even in EV mode, you may notice the gasoline engine fire up every once and again to, for example, warm the heater core. However, once the EV range drops below 1 mile, the gasoline engine will kick in in earnest and the vehicle will begin to behave like a regular Prius liftback.

All in all, the Prius only outputs a maximum 134 hp from its Hybrid Synergy Drive power train. When under EV mode, the 80 hp (60kW) electric motor handles motivation duty. When needed, another 98 ponies are provided by the 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine. (And before you point out that those numbers don't add up, we know and so does Toyota. Gasoline and electric motors output power at different rates, and combining their power isn't as simple as adding A to B.) That's not a huge amount of total power going through the Plug-in's eCVT and to the front wheels, so it's no surprise that the Prius doesn't snap the neck, even in its Power Mode. However with some combination of 105 pound-feet of torque from the gasoline engine and 153 pound-feet from the electric motor (Toyota doesn't seem to publish a combined torque number), the Prius isn't particularly slow off of the line either.

Every Prius Plug-in comes with a charging cable with a standard 120-volt plug.

Josh Miller/CNET

If you can tear your eyes away from the plethora of displays and meters reporting back your instantaneous fuel economy and crank up the JBL Green Edge stereo to overcome the obnoxious noise made by the gasoline engine when it inevitably pops on -- it sounds more like a large vacuum cleaner than an internal combustion engine -- then the Prius is not a bad ride. It goes, stops, and corners in a perfectly acceptable manner. Even with only 80 hp available in EV mode, the Plug-in doesn't feel obnoxiously slow off the line on level ground. Sure, there's a bit of lag between a pedal press and the continuously variable transmission allowing the gasoline engine to wind up and supply power, but the electric motor is always there to fill that critical moment between needing power and getting it, so I'm not complaining.

The last Prius we tested rounded out our testing cycle at about 47 mpg. The Prius Plug-in's trip computer read 60 mpg when I turned the keys over to my fellow Car Tech editors at the end of the week. Nightly recharging likely helped with that fuel economy bump, but I'm sure that with more careful trip planning and use of public charging stations, one could get even more mileage out of every gallon of burned gas. The EPA reckons that you can get up to 95 miles per gallon equivalent (mpge) for the first 11 miles of electric range, after which the gasoline engine causes the economy to drop to 50 mpg combined.

Under the hood, the Plug-in is identical to the regular Prius.

Josh Miller/CNET

Cabin tech and options
The Prius Plug-in is sold in two trim levels: a $32,000 base model and a $39,525 Prius Plug-in Advanced.

Our 2012 Prius Plug-in was a base model, lacking the Advanced's integrated fog lamps, LED headlamps, SofTex-trimmed seats and steering wheel, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, JBL Green Edge audio system, and the 7-inch Premium HDD Navigation with a special version of Entune that features Plug-in Hybrid Applications. Plug-in Advanced drivers can even use the Entune app on a smartphone to remotely control the hybrid's climate controls and schedule and monitor charging.

However, the base Plug-in still features a healthy list of standard cabin tech equipment, including a push-button starter and smart-key entry, the Prius-standard monochromatic eyebrow display with Touch Tracer steering-wheel controls, heated seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, automatic climate controls, and a respectable array of dashboard infotainment tech.

At the center of that dashboard is a 6.1-inch color touch display, which is home to the Prius' Entune-powered infotainment system. This isn't the same Entune system that's present in the Advance -- it uses a much more basic navigation system, which I'll get to momentarily, and lacks a few key Entune apps.

The standard audio system is based around an Entune-powered 6.1-inch display.

Josh Miller/CNET

Place the Prius in reverse and here is where you'll find the view out of the rearview camera displayed, but the screen is also home to a basic navigation system, the Bluetooth hands-free calling system, and controls for iPod, USB, and A2DP Bluetooth audio streaming. An analog auxiliary audio input, AM/FM/XM radio, and a single-slot CD player round out the available list of audio sources. Toyota locks the driver out of many parts of the touch-screen interface while driving, so you won't be able to browse your phone's address book or search for a destination while on the move. (Presumably this is for driver safety, but I find it odd that this same system makes you perform three taps to even see the map.) However, you are given a fairly comprehensive voice command system that allows you to call a contact by name and enter an address via a series of spoken prompts.

All audio is played through a system that has been optimized to draw as little power as possible from the Prius' battery pack while in use, but also to deliver big sound. It's not the best car stereo that I've tested, but it is still rather good. Bass reproduction is particularly good at moderate volumes. Boost the bass level of the three-band EQ too much or crank the volume too high and you will hear an obnoxious rattling coming from all over the Prius' cabin. Unless you like distortion and buzzing, I'd suggest that you keep the bass at just one or two ticks above flat and the volume below three-fourths. Thankfully, the Prius is quiet enough at most speeds that listening above moderate levels is mostly unnecessary. High frequencies did seem just a bit muted to my ear, but that's nothing that couldn't be fixed with the EQ. Three or four ticks of treble boost seemed to be about right, but your preferences may differ.

The basic navigation is rudimentary, but can be fleshed out with data provided by a smartphone running Entune.

Josh Miller/CNET

Earlier I called the navigation system "basic"; that's because it doesn't feature traffic data or a built-in destination database -- at least, not on its own it doesn't. However, you can gain access to these functions and others by pairing your Internet-connected smartphone via Bluetooth to open up the Entune app functionality, pulling this data from the Internet via Bing. After connecting and logging in, the Entune system can download traffic updates, sports scores, and stock prices, search Bing for local destinations, and stream Pandora Internet radio. This system is essentially the same as the one tested in the 2012 Prius c, so check out that review for more details. Out of the box, this lower-level Entune system lacks the Advanced's OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, and iHeartRadio app hooks, but an over-the-air update that is scheduled to happen after this review is posted should add them to the mix.

In sum
Starting at $32,000 before the $760 destination charge, the 2012 Plug-in Prius's base price is $8,000 more expensive than the entry point for the standard Prius Two (base model). However, the standard equipment included on the base Plug-in means that it actually matches better with the $25,565 Prius Three model, reducing the price premium to $6,435. Depending on how close you think you can get to the magical 95 mpge number with city driving and regular recharges, that may be money well spent. However, if you're more of a freeway cruiser, maybe save a few bucks and stick with the standard line of Prii.

The 2012 Prius Plug-in is more expensive, but it can also be much more efficient depending on your driving habits.

Josh Miller/CNET
Tech specs
Model2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in
TrimBase
Power train1.8-liter Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive with plug-in lithium ion battery pack
EPA fuel economy95 mpge, 50 mpg highway/city combined
Observed fuel economyApprox. 60 mpg
NavigationBasic w/ Entune traffic and weather
Bluetooth phone supportYes
Disc playerSingle-slot CD
MP3 player supportStandard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audioSiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio systemBasic
Driver aidsRearview camera
Base price$32,000
Price as tested$32,760

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