Prius Plug-in Hybrid - Part Three - First Drive

Tuesday 16th August, 2011
On the day I picked up the Plug-in Prius, I happened to be leaving work at lunchtime to travel over to Caversham, near Reading in Berkshire, for the funeral of a colleague. These are the kind of ad-hoc journeys that you don't plan for when buying a car.

As I was parked at the office, the short charge time of the Prius was convenient and when I came to leave, the batteries were full and we were back to a range of 12.7miles - until the air-con kicked in. For realism, however, I left the climate control turned on and set to my preferred 20.5C - considerably cooler than the external 24C temperature. Range slowly ticking away,  I hastily entered my destination into the sat nav and proceeded on my way.

The first thing I noticed was that this model has no reversing camera fitted. Having owned a car with one fitted for many years now, it's always a bit weird to reverse out whilst staring at the sat nav...suddenly you realise that you need to use the mirrors. This is the only time the split rear screen of the Prius comes in handy - whilst it's pretty odd to look out of in normal conditions, without the lower section you couldn't really see out properly and reversing could be problematic in an unfamiliar car without a camera.
I realised there was an "eco" button on the dash and, having not used it on the little drive back from picking up the car in the morning, I thought I'd give it a go. Normally, a throttle pedal carefully controls the speed/acceleration of the vehicle. More throttle, more speed. Even more throttle, even more speed etc. In "eco" mode, however, all these movements are smoothed out (read ignored) and, unless you put your foot right on the floor, the car will pull away with all the haste of a Nissan Micra owner off to pick up her pension from the Post Office. Slow and uncomfortable is not enough to describe it when you're used to a responsive throttle pedal and nipping into small gaps on a roundabout.

On the flipside, what is the point of owning an eco car unless you're going to drive it like one? If you want a fun, responsive drive, you ticked the wrong box on the Company Car form - you bought this car to save petrol and reduce your company car tax, now is the time to prove it. So I left the Eco mode on all the time - well, almost - those roundabouts through Bracknell were a complete bind with it turned on.
Hitting the motorway for the first time, joining the M25 at Leatherhead J9, (ok, I admit, I turned the Eco off again briefly) I swiftly hit the 70mph speed limit and noticed that the car had automatically switched over to petrol/hybrid mode. Clearly, at those kinds of speeds, Toyota have concluded that there's no real point in wasting the stored electricity when there's a tank of unleaded in the back. When I hit the compulsory 50mph speed limit around the construction of Cobham Services, the engine cut out again and I was, once more, being propelled by battery power alone.

At this point I realised I'd left all my Maynard's Midget Gems in the other car and decided to take a slight detour home to pick them up. There's something odd about driving in a quiet car at the speed get bored. And when I'm bored, I get hungry. By the time I got to Reading, I'd killed the entire bag of sweets...but not much fuel.
Considering I'd made no effort at all and the Eco mode had been disabled for all the "fun" parts of the journey, I was rather impressed with the claimed 86.0mpg but, of course, this includes the first 12 miles or so which didn't use any gallons at all. Besides, I hadn't even travelled 86 miles yet....just 49.3.

So, in real terms, I'd travelled say 12.3 miles on electric and the remaining 37 miles on unleaded using the petrol hybrid setup which, after a bit of mathematic jiggling, equates to about 64.5mpg - not exactly the 108.6mpg from the test cycle but still pretty acceptable for an average economy figure. I'd used about £3.50 of petrol to do the 49.3 miles journey, or 7 pence per mile. Of course we have to add the electricity cost on to that but we STILL don't know how much it is until we get home and plug the meter in.

Getting back in the car after the service, I noticed a rather odd reading on the car's external temperature.
I know it was warm that day but it wasn't THAT hot - the sensor must be experiencing some heat soak from somewhere. Also, I noticed when wearing my polarised Oakley sunglasses that the HVAC display was really hard to see when me head was tipped at certain angles. Some odd optic property in the cover - I've noticed this on a few cars.

As it was rush hour, and I wanted to get home for my son's bedtime story, I had a rather more spirited drive home - using "power" mode for the first time. This makes the throttle more responsive and appears to improve power output from the engine. Whilst it doesn't exactly feel like a pocket rocket, compared to my normal daily drive, it's actually pretty nippy. There are a lot of traffic lights and roundabouts in Bracknell and each time a rep in a Golf TDi (with a red i) did his best to match the Prius' pace and failed. One time he was close but then he needed to change gear whereas the hybrid's CVT just kept on going until he was a dot in the mirror.

It's hitting those roundabouts that makes you realise that the Prius is no sportscar. The over-assisted power steering feels like it's attached to the front wheels by an elastic band and it's not exactly the best feedback I've ever had when driving a car. If you've ever driven a computer game with a cheap gaming wheel, you'll know where I'm coming from - it's almost like the Prius needs some force feedback in the steering. Maybe it's the weight of the extra batteries in the back that make the front end lighter? I haven't actually driven a standard 3rd gen Prius to compare directly.

Compared to the 2nd Gen Prius I did drive a while ago, I find the 3rd Gen to be much quieter and smoother and, thankfully, the traction control is much less hyperactive. On the 2nd Gen I found that if you floored it away you'd get wheel spin then the traction control would kick in and kill all the power leaving you stuck half-way out of a junction until it woke back up - thankfully this seems to be resolved in the current model and, even with the added power from the Lithium batteries, I'm not finding any power lag outside of Eco mode.
Arriving home to a claimed average mpg of 73.0 after that journey home could only impress. Even taking off the 12miles for electric, that's still an average 62mpg for petrol hybrid mode and a cost for the journey of £6.55 or about 8 pence per mile. Of course, we still need to add on the cost for the electric and we'll know how much that is when we get home and plug it in...

Prius Plug-in Hybrid - Part Four - Home Charging

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