The first shipments of the long-awaited plug-in Prius arrived in the US at the end of February as Toyota rolled out the vehicle in foreign markets, including Europe, for the first time after years of testing. Based on what is now the third generation of the world’s most popular hybrid vehicle, the plug-in version of the Prius offers an electric range of nearly 150 miles, thereby increasing the fuel efficiency of the vehicle beyond the combined 42.4 miles per gallon. The vehicle holds a 4.4-kilowatt lithium ion battery on board.
It’s been a long road to get the Prius to this stage. First debuting in 1997, it has for the past 15 years remained a hybrid vehicle with a limited electric range of just a few miles. It has instead focused on increasing efficiency by limiting the use of its combustion engine to the bare minimum while generating electric power through a generator cycle.
Toyota first began testing a plug-in version of the Prius using some 600 pre-production models across the globe in countries including Japan, Canada, Australia and the US in late 2009. It finally unveiled a production version of the plug-in Prius at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2011, before commercial production started in early 2012.
In the US, the vehicles will first go on sale in California following deliveries by a container vessel to the ports of Benicia near San Francisco and later to Long Beach. Later deliveries will head to Jacksonville in Florida, followed by Newark, the state capital of New Jersey close to New York City.
The question is, what will the introduction of the Prius do to the plug-in market in the US, the world’s biggest market for automobiles? Although the original Prius was something of a trailblazer when it first arrived on the scene in 1997, in recent years, vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt have taken a lead over Toyota when it comes to plug-ins.
However, the Prius plug-in is a very different vehicle. While the Leaf and the Volt have become pioneers in the all-electric market, the Prius Plug-in remains a vehicle that focuses on squeezing every last mile out of a combustion engine rather than on using electric power exclusively.
In terms of the development of the market, this distinction is important. Toyota has had great commercial success with the Prius, selling huge volumes in the US and Europe in particular. The performance of the Prius plug-in suggests the world’s largest carmaker still does not feel that straight electrics can sell the same kind of numbers given the limits of current technology, particularly in relation to range and recharging times.
The carmaker has already said it expects to sell 15,000 Prius plug-ins in the US alone during its first year before a nationwide roll-out planned for 2013. These are the kinds of numbers the likes of Nissan and Chevy can only dream of with the Leaf and Volt respectively.
So although plug-ins look set to remain vastly unpopular for the time being, this new plug-in will, however, almost certainly do something that has never happened in the history of the automobile: Make plugging in a private vehicle part of the motoring mainstream.