Prius Plug-in Hybrid - Part Five - How Does it Drive?

Tuesday 6th September, 2011
There are things that you'll never pick up on a quick drive around the block. Which is why, when buying a new car, you should always encourage your dealer to loan you a demonstration car for at least a couple of days. It may feel just fine at first but, when you're behind the wheel for an extended period, you get a real feel for the car. For example, both the Prius and the Honda Insight I drove some time ago have a split rear window. This looks extremely odd in the mirror on a first drive but, after a couple of days normal driving, you just become accustomed to it and almost forget it's there. Extended test drives are where it's at.

Commuting in the Prius for two weeks was plenty time to get accustomed to the feel of ownership. I'd never driven a 3rd gen Prius before but had been a passenger in a colleagues car on numerous occasions. As a passenger is felt big and spacious - in fact a bit too spacious. It didn't feel cosy at all, a bit like drinking in an empty pub. Behind the steering wheel, however, things feel a bit different. Whilst you still have plenty of room, in the pilot's seat things begin to feel a bit more normal. It still couldn't be described as cosy, but considerably less detached and rather more comfortable

At this point, it would make sense to draw some comparisons to the Nissan LEAF electric vehicle, which I drove for an extended period on their European Press Launch in Lisbon, Portugal. After all, potential buyers may well be trying to make some kind of comparison between these two well known plug-in vehicles.

Before even pushing the start button you can feel a clear difference. In the LEAF you're surrounded by high quality trim, solid plastics that look like they aren't going to rattle the first time you hit a bump in the road. Your first impressions would be correct, the LEAF is an extremely comfortable place to be and it's clear that Nissan has made a concerted effort to deliver a quality vehicle to its buyers. The display on the Leaf In Car Entertainment (ICE) module clearly received a lot of thought and the built in "Carwings" technology allows drivers to locate their nearest charging point and monitor their battery using a dedicated iPhone app - all things that the plug-in Prius doesn't appear to offer in this prototype model.

When driving, the LEAF also excels in many areas. It's smooth, relatively silent and handles changes in the road surface excellently. Nissan have made efforts to reduce wind noise and other similar qualities, it worked. The only minor comfort quibble I had with the Nissan was that both heating and air-conditioning appeared to be a bit under-powered.  It's hard to test the latter in Portugal when it's 28 degrees outside but, whereas the Prius vents blew so cold I had to point them away from my hands, the air conditioning in the Leaf appeared to struggle to keep two grown men cool. I wouldn't want to drive it with three or four passengers on a hot day.

One major flaw I found with the LEAF was when changing driving mode from normal to eco. In the Prius, you simply hit a button and carry on - the car continues to drive as it did before and you don't really notice until you pull away from the next junction. In the LEAF, it was a very contrasting story and engaging the eco mode made everything feel rather different. The first thing you notice when hitting the eco button is that the throttle mapping changes slightly. For non-technical readers, that means you might be doing say 40mph and engage eco mode and the next thing you notice you're doing 32mph without moving the accelerator pedal. This saves battery but I found it quite annoying to have to adjust my throttle position to maintain the same speed when switching between modes. Not an issue on the Prius, it just switches mode.

Likewise the brakes change their feel too. In the Prius, you hit the brakes and it feels just like you might expect. Actually, if I'm honest, it feels just like a hybrid and it you're not used to that it can feel a bit odd. The LEAF feels very similar in normal mode but engage eco and it goes into some kind of energy regeneration cycle and the pedal feels alien and completely detached from the driving process. Most unexpected of all, the steering in eco mode even felt different in the LEAF - to the extent that I simply didn't like driving it. I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that these changes were dangerous but it did make me think perhaps that maybe driving mode changes should be restricted to when the vehicle is stationary.

So ignoring the eco modes which, to be honest, are pretty unfavourable to anybody who enjoys driving, where would I rather be? To be honest, that would be the LEAF. All the reviews say it's a great place to be and an excellent drive but, until you drive some of the other competing cars, you don't realise how true it is. Whilst perfectly comfortable and spacious, the Prius isn't somewhere I'd want to be for several hours in a row and I'd rather get out. The LEAF, by contrast, is somewhere I would happily sit for hundreds of miles - especially as a passenger. Even as a driver it's not a particularly engaging drive but nevertheless it's rather comfortable and, outside of eco mode, a fairly responsive drive.

Of course, you may have realised, there's a certain irony here. Whilst the LEAF provides the kind of luxuries you'd except to receive for £30,990, the way I drive it will actually only go for 80 miles before you need to recharge. This means that, however comfortable it may be, I'm going to have to stop every hour or so whether I want to or not. The Prius will easily hit 500 miles when fully fuelled, meaning I could easily drive for 6 or 7 hours without a break - but I truly wouldn't want to sit in it for that long.

I could easily commute in a LEAF on a daily basis and it would meet all my requirements in a very comfortable way. Sadly, it wouldn't meet my weekend mileage requirements at all and, by the time I'd paid for it, wouldn't leave any funds in my budget to buy an additional car that did. The Prius meets my needs, but I don't like it as much as a car.

Of course, the driving experience is very subjective and everybody has different expectations from a vehicle. Clearly this segment doesn't work for me as I find it a bit gutless and lacking in that premium feel - althought the LEAF does a fairly good job. This exact reason is why I rarely share my experiences of driving a car, if we all liked the same thing we'd all be driving the exact same make and model. I personally like to drive a car with a bit more oomph but I recognise that, if I downgraded to a modern "eco" car, I could save a lot of money in fuel. So, in my next write-up, I'll return to avoiding the opinionated stuff and get back to the maths, examining the expected cost of ownership of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

Prius Plug-in Hybrid Part Six - Running Costs & Emissions

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