Inhabitat just had the chance to take both a Chevy Volt and a pre-production prototype of the Plug-in Prius for week-long test drives so we thought a face-off was in order! The plug-in hybrid is similar in many ways to the Chevy Volt, but there are some important differences that will affect which one you want to buy. The Prius is designed for city stop-and-go driving, which will help recharge its 13-mile battery range. But if you drive the vehicle above 60 miles per hour, such as on the highway, the car switches to the gas engine for power, and the battery range is quickly run down. The Volt, by contrast, is designed to go 37 miles on one battery charge regardless of the speed you travel, and does better on high-speed roads. However, because the Prius is designed for city driving, you can get as much as a third of a mile of battery range recharge from braking gradually at a stoplight, whereas in the Volt the regenerative braking doesn't seem to do much of anything to increase your battery range. So, Prius for the city, Volt for the exurbs. But what else is different between these two very unique vehicles?
We were surprised how much more upmarket the Volt felt compared to the plug-in Prius. We have to mention that the vehicle we were driving was not a final production model, so some features and trim might not be the final versions, but there was a clear difference in the level of amenities each car provided. The Volt had two full-color animated video screens, while the Prius had single-color digital displays on the dash. Plus the Volt was quieter in the cabin and had a smoother ride. However, the cars are quite similar. The Volt copies the Prius’s rear flat-bottom hatch, its bucket rear seats, contoured roof, and aerodynamic shape. The Prius has been rocking these features for nearly a decade already. And you have to remember that although these cars have similar technology under the hood, the Prius is half the price of the most expensive Volt. Those nice touches in the Volt may be worth sacrificing if you want to get into a plug-in hybrid at an affordable price.
Neither one of these cars is going to do you very well on country roads in the winter, but we noticed distinctly better grip on gravel in the Prius than in the Volt, due to the Volt’s low-rolling resistance tires and lightweight wheels. That’s too bad, since the Prius generally is designed for city driving and the Volt has longer range to reach out into the country. One other difference that may be important to some people is that the Prius has a rear seat to fit three people (small people, that is), while the Volt’s battery pack requires the middle seat space and turns it into a center console with cupholders between two bucket seats. But, other than these differences and the gap in trim levels, the biggest difference is the way these vehicles operate. If you run errands around town and have 5 hours to charge your hybrid, the Prius is for you. If you mix city driving with long jaunts on the highway, or need a little more power at higher speeds, the Volt will make you much happier. Either way, you will save money on gas, no question of that. The plug-in Prius is expected to be half as thirsty as its non-plug-in predecessors, so if you drive it in its native habitat, you will get similar mileage to the Volt, which only required us to fill up half of its 8-gallon tank after a week of hard driving. Juicing up the batteries of both hybrids at home is estimated to cost about 1/10 as much as gas at the pump, so we’re talking an average of 70% less credit card pain to run these vehicles than your standard sedan.