The most important thing we discovered while driving the plug-in Prius was that it is clearly designed for stop-and-go city driving. When we took it from stoplight to stoplight, gradual braking could put as much as a third of a mile back on the estimated battery range indicator, which means that going across town block by block could tame your road rage by taking you almost infinitely further than the original 13-mile EV range. At over speeds of 60 miles per hour, however, the car switched to gas power and felt a bit underpowered. The Prius has an indicator on the dash to tell you when you’re in EV mode or “Eco” mode, and any time you push down the gas pedal for quicker acceleration, the lights speed to the right end of the Eco indicator marked “Power.” As in, slow down Lead Foot, you’re ruining your gas mileage. The only problem is, this is required to get up to highway speeds or accelerate at a reasonable pace in faster traffic. So, we stuck to back roads after a while to keep from angering the little hybrid too much.
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 distinct lack of luxury or high-tech features in the Prius. The displays are condensed into a one-color digital readout on the dash that tells the driver everything from fuel levels and speed to what the hybrid system is up to, but these are a fairly simple affair. The navigation and radio display on the center console was much more upmarket, with a touchscreen, satellite radio, and a decent navigation system. If you’re not too into high-tech, however, and just want the Prius for its gas-saving capabilities, you will find the vehicle comfortable. The Prius has comfy bucket seats, three seats in the back compared to the Chevy Volt’s two, and a spacious rear hatch. It also handles fairly well for its size. Well, relatively speaking.
While we felt like we might skid off the road at any time with the slightly sloppy handling of the Prius, we never slipped once. In the Chevy Volt, the low-friction tires caused us to skid repeatedly on gravel surfaces–bone dry gravel surfaces. 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 compared to the Volt, which will serve you well in the city or country in any weather.
So, should you buy one? If you have been breathlessly waiting for the plug-in version of the Prius and obsessively researching it like the person who accosted us in the (you guessed it) Whole Foods parking lot, then you should sign up for a plug-in Prius now. It will make you so, so happy. But if you’re waiting for electric hybrids to get a little more power and a little more style, maybe wait a couple more years for the batch of plug-ins coming from more upmarket brands like Audi and Lexus and BMW. By then, advances in battery tech should make up for the performance these brands will refuse to compromise, and your mileage will be about the same. But if you just can’t wait, your plug-in chariot awaits.