2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid Test Drive and Review

By John Addison (9/19/11)

This new 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in (PHV) looks just like the classic Prius Liftback except in rear exterior is the cover for the electric charge port; the gasoline cap is on the left.

Sitting behind the wheel of this new Toyota Prius Plug-in (PHV), I wonder how the driving experience will compare with the Chevrolet Volt, my Nissan LEAF, and other members of the Prius family. Next month, Toyota starts the online order process for the Prius PHV with a starting price of $32,000 for dealer deliveries in early 2012.  Online, buyers can configure their Prius PHV, start the order, and then select a Toyota dealer to continue the process.

When I touch Start the useful LED displays light and I’m ready to drive. The car’s default driving mode is ECO for fuel economy. At any time while driving, three buttons on the dash allow convenient driving mode selection – EV, ECO, and Power. I touch EV, step lightly on the accelerator and glide away.

In EV mode, the Prius PHV is only propelled by one of two electric motors. One motor is for propulsion, the other for electricity generation. This Prius PHV is quieter than a Liftback, but unlike the Nissan LEAF, I hear the gasoline engine, which can sometimes idle even in EV mode. I accelerate up to 45 mph before the Prius PHV automatically switches me to ECO mode; 45 is better than I achieved in my previous PHV test drive, thanks to coaching from my test drive partner, Bill Moore, Publisher of EV World. In theory, the Prius PHV has a maximum of 62 mph in EV mode, but reaching that requires adequate lithium battery charge, and a couple of other journalist had already taken this car for a spin.

When not driving in EV mode, the Prius PHV delivers about the same fuel economy as the Prius Liftback. The Prius PHV averages 49 mpg in ECO hybrid mode and is rated at 87 mpg overall.  In ECO mode the hybrid drive system will at times only use the electric motor. The Prius PHV is designed to be in EV mode 15 miles per charge.

I smoothly drive over railroad tracks. This Prius has good shocks. The steering is effortless. Stopping and starting are transparent.

As I accelerate on to the freeway, I could select the Power mode. Instead, I let the Prius PHV do it automatically. I accelerate up the graded onramp and reach 65 mph before merging with traffic.

After five miles of driving, I must sadly return this beautiful car so that the next auto journalist can take it for a spin.  This Prius PHV feels like the two million other Prii (yep, that’s the official plural of Prius) now on the road. The Prius Plug-in is ready for prime time.

Prius Plug-in Drive System and Lithium Battery

The Prius PHV now has an estimated 15-mile electric range, a modest improvement from 13-mile prototype range. The Prius PHV drive system is based on the proven Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive well in its hybrids for over a dozen years. The full series-parallel hybrid drive system uses imbedded computer chips to automatically engage, as needed the 80-horse power (60 kW) electric motor and/or the 1.8L 98-horsepower (73 kW) gasoline engine.

Managing the engagement of electric motors and engine is a Hybrid Transaxle, which combines power split planetary gear set ring with speed reduction planetary gear set ring. The car gets great mileage because energy is captured, whenever possible, from braking and energy resistance. On a long downhill, you can shift into “B” for added regen.

The Prius PHV includes a 4.4 kW lithium-battery pack, a bit smaller than the pack tested in 600 vehicles. A second electric motor (MG1) is used to generate electricity. Both motors are air-cooled permanent magnet.

Prius PHV drivers will most fuel with gasoline. Chevrolet Volt drivers are mostly fueling with electricity. Pure-electric drivers like me only fuel with electricity. For my Nissan LEAF, I had a Level 2 charger installed in the garage so that I charge at the rate of about one hour for each 12 miles of driving. Before the Level 2 charger was installed we use the Level 1 charger and a garage outlet and charged at the rate of about 4 miles per hour.

In some communities, electric utilities and building inspectors are friendly towards the installation of electric vehicle chargers. In other places, and especially for those living in large apartments or co-ops, adding a charger can be difficult, expensive, and/or impossible. Since the Prius PHV only takes 3 hours max to charge Level 1 and only 1.5 Level 2, many Prius PHV buyers will skip the hassle of installing a charger and simply Level 1 charge from any 15 amp dedicated circuit. Toyota is partnering with Leviton to offer a Level 2 charger installed for $995, but be careful to get a quote for any added electrical work. Whether or not a home charger is installed, the Prius PHV can use public Level 2 chargers.

Prius Plug-in Features and Price

The Prius PHV is a 5-door, 5-passenger, liftback with a midsized interior. Inside and out it is as roomy as the best-selling Prius Liftback. The PHV’s 4.4kW lithium battery is well-placed, so that the 60/40 back seats can be lowered to provide plenty of room for trips to big box stores, luggage, work boxes, skis and boards, even a couple of bicycles. The small lithium pack enabled Toyota to make the PHV only 123 pounds heavier than the Liftback. When the backseats are up, a convenient armrest can be lowered.

The Prius PHV is priced starting at $32,000 but you should be eligible for a $2,500 federal tax credit. This plug-in hybrid may be eligible for added incentives from your employer or from your state.

The Prius PHV Advanced starts at  $39,525, with a Premium HDD Navigation with Entune, plug-in hybrid apps, LED headlamps with auto level control, Safety Connect, dynamic radar cruise control, head up display (HUD), and pre-collision system.

There was a time when people would pay up to $3,500 extra in California for a Prius with an HOV sticker, allowing them to save hours of commuting gridlock. As an incentive for early adopters, only so many HOV stickers were issued. In California that old HOV Yellow Sticker is gone, but there is a new HOV White sticker for plug-in cars. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid qualifies, the classic Prius Liftback does not.

Is the Prius PHV the best car for you?

You now have a choice of three different Prius models. This time next year, you will have four choices:

  • Prius Liftback – Midsized interior, 50 mpg, starts at $23,500
  • Prius V – Crossover SUV, 42 mpg, starts at $26,400
  • Prius C – smaller hatchback, best hybrid mpg, priced Summer 2012
  • Prius PHV – Midsized interior, 87 mpg, starts at $32,000

Prius Family – the Prius PHV will be the best if you want a plug-in hybrid. Its starting price is $8,500 more than the best-selling Prius Liftback. The gap narrows to $6,000 after a federal tax credit. Your employer or state may give you added incentives to get the plug-in. The Prius PHV includes a touch-screen navigation system with backup camera and other features, which would be optional extras on the base Prius Liftback. If you get stuck in nasty rush-hour commutes an HOV sticker can have real value. Electric charging is cheap; gasoline fill-ups are expensive. The Prius PHV might pay for itself in a few years compared to the Liftback.

Chevrolet Volt will be tough competition for the Prius PHV.  GM will deliver 16,000 plug-in hybrids in 2011 and 65,000 in 2012. The Prius Plug-in cost about $8,000 less than the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid with a 40-mile electric range in comparison to the Prius PHV’s 15-mile. After federal tax credits, the difference narrows to only $3,000. Prius PHV drivers may neglect to always recharge. Volt drivers that I interview always recharge. The extra $3,000 for the Volt may pay for itself in less than five years of saved gasoline. The Prius PHV seats five, the Volt only four. I have been impressed test-driving both. They are both worth your taking a test drive.

Ford C-MAX Plug-in Hybrid. Later next year, Ford will start selling a five-door, five seat plug-in hybrid hatchback that will compete head-on with the Prius PHV.  The Ford C-MAX Plug-in is expected to have a 40 mile electric range versus the Prius PHV’s 15. Ford has not yet announced pricing. Ford is also selling the Focus Electric with 100-mile pure electric range.

Nissan LEAF is the best selling electric car, delivering 50,000 in 2011. My experience as an owner is that this pure battery electric has an electric range of up to 140 miles on 30 mph streets, but only 60 miles when cruising the freeway while running your air conditioner. My wife and I share the LEAF and also have a hybrid which we use a couple of days weekly and on long-trips. By itself, the LEAF with its limited range would only meet 80 percent of our needs, but with two cars it has never been a problem. It cost us $40 monthly in electricity to run the LEAF, the cost of one fill-up at a gas station. The 2012 LEAF starts at $3,200 more than the Prius V, but after federal tax credits is $1,800 less and can save you about $500 to $1,000 annually in gasoline.

As the world leader in hybrid cars, Toyota is fighting to extend that leadership in both plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars. In plug-in hybrids, GM plans on first mover advantage with the Chevy Volt. In electric cars, the Nissan LEAF has a sizable lead over the Toyota’s 2012 pure-electric offerings, the Toyota RAV4 EV and the Scion IQ EV. But Toyota has more cars on the road with electric motors, advanced batteries, and electric drive systems than all competitors put together. Toyota does not like second place.

In 2012, will have no trouble selling the 15,000 Prius PHV planned for production. The 2012 Prius PHV will be an appealing alternative to many who first consider the less expensive Prius Liftback. With only a 15-mile electric range the PHV will not be for everyone. Toyota Motor Corporation is now offering customers a wide-range of choices including the Toyota RAV4 EV, the Scion IQ EV, a family of four Prii, the Camry hybrid, the Highlander 4WD hybrid, five Lexus hybrids, and a growing range of fuel economy offerings for most drivers.

2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid SPECIFICATIONS

Hybrid Drive System

  • Hybrid Net System 134 horsepower
  • 2ZR-FXE (Atkinson cycle)
  • 4-cylinder aluminum block and head, double overhead cam (DOHC) 16-valve VVT-i
  • 4-valve/cylinder with VVT-i
  • Displacement 1,798 cc
  • Bore x Stroke 3.17 x 3.48 in.
  • Compression Ratio 13.0:1
  • Horsepower (SAE Net) 98 horsepower @ 5,200 rpm
  • Torque 105 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
  • Recommended Fuel 87-octane unleaded
  • Emission Certification SULEV (with AT-PZEV) Tier 2 Bin 3
  • Toyota Estimated Fuel Economy*
  • 87+ MPGe
  • Hybrid 49 MPG
  • Electric driving range 15 miles
  • Charging time 1.5 hours (240V) / 3 hours (120V)

Electronically Controlled continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT)


  • Drives front wheels, regeneration during braking
  • Permanent Magnet AC Synchronous Motor
  • Max Voltage DC650V
  • Electric Motor Power Output 80 hp/60 kW
  • Torque 153 lb.-ft.


  • Lithium-ion
  • Weight (lb.) 176
  • Capacity (kWh) 4.4

* 2012 Toyota MPG estimate. Actual mileage will vary.

Suspension – Front Independent MacPherson strut suspension with stabilizer bar
– Rear Torsion beam
Electric Power Steering (EPS); power-assisted rack-and-pinion
– Turning circle diameter, curb to curb (ft.) 34.2 ft.
Brakes –

  • Ventilated front disc (hydraulic with power assist) with standard Anti-Lock Brake (ABS) system and integrated regenerative brake system
  • Front Diameter 10.0 in. rotor
  • Rear Solid disc (hydraulic with power assist) with standard Anti-lock Brake System (ABS)
  • – Rear Diameter 10.2 in. rotor
  • Parking Pedal brake
  • Anti-lock Brake System (ABS)
  • Standard Wheel Size 6J x 15 in.
  • Wheel Type and Material 10-spoke aluminum alloy
  • Tire Size P195/65 R15
  • Tire Type All-season
  • Spare Tire/Wheel = Tire repair kit


  • Overall Length 176.4 in.
  • Overall Width 68.7 in.
  • Overall Height 58.7 in.
  • Wheelbase 106.3 in.
  • Tread Width (Front/Rear) 60.0/59.8 in.
  • Front Overhang 36.4 in.
  • Rear Overhang 33.7 in
  • Ground Clearance 5.3 in.
  • Coefficient of Drag 0.25


  • Seating Capacity 5
  • Headroom (Front/Rear) 38.6/37.6 in.
  • Legroom (Front/Rear) 42.5/36.0 in.
  • Shoulder Room (Front/Rear) 54.9/53.1 in.
  • Hip Room (Front/Rear) 52.7/51.2 in.
  • Passenger Volume 93.7 cu. ft.
  • Cargo Volume 21.6 cu. ft.


  • Curb Weight 3165 lbs.
  • Fuel Capacity 10.6 gal.


  • 15-in. 10-spoke alloy wheels and P195/65R15 tires
  • Color-keyed power outside mirrors with folding feature
  • Projector-beam halogen headlamps with auto-off feature
  • LED tail and stop lamps
  • Rear spoiler with LED center high-mount stop lamp
  • Rear window defogger with timer
  • UV reduction glass windshield
  • Washer-linked variable intermittent windshield wipers
  • Intermittent rear window wiper
  • Charge port with illumination and charging indictor light
  • Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced (in addition to or in place of standard grade features)
  • LED headlamps with auto level control, auto-on/off feature and headlamp cleaners
  • Integrated fog lamps


  • Tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio, climate, Multi-Information Display and Bluetooth® hands-free phone and voice-command controls
  • Multi-Information Display with fuel consumption history, average fuel economy, distance to empty, average speed, trip distance, charger timer, EV Driving Ratio, Hybrid System Indicator, ECO Savings Record and energy monitor
  • Digital instrumentation with speedometer, fuel gauge, odometer, instant fuel consumption, shift-position indicator and EV/ECO/POWER mode indicators
  • Automatic climate control with air filter, dust and pollen filter/filtration mode, electric compressor, humidity sensor and push button controls
  • Remote Air Conditioning System
  • Power windows with auto up/down, jam protection in all positions and retained power features
  • Remote keyless entry system with lock, two-stage unlock and panic functions
  • Smart Key System on three doors with Push Button Start and remote illuminated entry
  • Front door storage pockets with sculpted bottle holders
  • Fabric-trimmed heated front seats with seatback pockets; 6-way adjustable driver’s seat; 4-way adjustable front passenger seat
  • 60/40 split fold-down rear seat with adjustable headrests
  • Fold-forward rear outboard headrests
  • Rear fold-down center armrest with two cup holders
  • Dual sunvisors and illuminated vanity mirrors
  • Power door locks with shift-linked automatic locking feature with anti-lockout feature
  • Two front 12V auxiliary power outlets
  • Cruise control
  • Touch Tracer Display
  • Overhead console with driver and front passenger maplamps and shift illumination
  • Electronic shift lever with Hybrid Synergy Drive® blue accent
  • Center console with armrest, storage compartment, front dual cup holders, removable utility tray, wire-management feature and 12V auxiliary power outlet
  • Passenger-side dual glove compartment
  • Remote hood and fuel-filler releases
  • Charge cable for 120V outlet
  • Rear dome lamp and cargo area lamp
  • Retractable assist grips at all doors
  • Cargo area under-floor storage and side panel storage
  • Cargo area tonneau cover with clasp for under-floor stowage

Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced

(in addition to or in place of standard grade features)

  • Tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio, climate, Multi-Information Display, Bluetooth® hands-free phone, voice-command and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) controls
  • Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
  • Auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink® universal transceiver
  • SofTex-trimmed heated front seats with seatback pockets; 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with power lumbar support; 4-way adjustable front passenger seat


Display Audio with Navigation and EntuneTM — includes 6.1-in. touch-screen with integrated backup camera display, AM/FM CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability, six speakers, SiriusXM™ Satellite Radio (includes 90-day trial subscription to XM Select Package), HD RadioTM with iTunes® Tagging, auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod® connectivity and control, vehicle information with customizable settings, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, advanced voice recognition, text-to-speech with programmed and customizable text responses, and music streaming via Bluetooth® wireless technology

EntuneTM — includes BingTM and Pandora®; real-time info including traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks. Apps available spring 2012 at no charge include iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable®. Access to EntuneTM services is complimentary for three years. See toyota.com/entune for details.

Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced (in addition to or in place of standard grade features)

Premium HDD Navigation with EntuneTM, Plug-in Hybrid Applications and JBL® — includes 7-in. touch-screen with split-screen capability and integrated backup camera display, AM/FM CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability, eight JBL® GreenEdgeTM speakers with amplifier, SiriusXM™Satellite Radio (includes 90-day trial subscription to XM Select Package), HD RadioTM with iTunes® Tagging, auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod® connectivity and control, vehicle information with customizable settings, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, advanced voice recognition, text-to-speech with programmed and customizable text responses, and music streaming via Bluetooth® wireless technology

EntuneTM — includes BingTM, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable® and Pandora®; XM Data Services including NavTrafficTM, NavWeatherTM, Fuel, and Sports & Stocks; EntuneTM Plug-in Hybrid Applications include Charge Management, Remote Air Conditioning System, Charging Station Map, Vehicle Finder and Eco Dashboard. Access to EntuneTM services and Plug-in Hybrid Applications is complimentary for three years. See toyota.com/entune for details.


  • Star Safety System™ – includes Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction control (TRAC), Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and Smart Stop Technology (SST).
  • Daytime Running Lights (DRL) with on/off feature
  • Driver and front passenger Advanced Airbag System
  • Driver and front passenger front seat-mounted side airbags, driver knee airbag and front and rear side curtain airbags
  • Driver and front passenger active headrests
  • Tire Pressure Monitor System (TPMS)
  • Front and rear energy-absorbing crumple zones
  • Side-impact door beams
  • 3-point seatbelts for all seating positions; driver-side Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR) and Automatic/Emergency Locking Retractor (ALR/ELR) on all passenger seatbelts
  • Adjustable front seat shoulder anchors, driver and front passenger seatbelt pretensioners with force limiters
  • LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) includes lower anchors on outboard rear seats
  • Child protector rear door locks
  • Energy-absorbing collapsible steering column
  • Engine immobilizer
  • Tire Repair System
  • Vehicle Proximity Notification System
  • Additional year of roadside assistance for a total of three years of roadside from date of purchase
  • Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced (in addition to or in place of standard grade features)
  • Safety Connect® — includes Emergency Assistance, Stolen Vehicle Locator, Roadside Assistance and Automatic Collision Notification. Available by subscription. (Complimentary three-year trial subscription).
  • Pre-Collision System (PCS)
  • Head-Up Display (HUD)

– Blizzard Pearl
– Sea Glass Pearl
– Winter Gray Metallic
– Classic Silver Metallic
– Clearwater Blue Metallic

  • Basic: 36 months/36,000 miles (all components other than normal wear and maintenance items).
  • Lithium Battery and Hybrid-Related Component Coverage: Hybrid-related components, including the HV battery, battery control module, hybrid control module and inverter with converter, are covered for 8 years/100,000 miles. The HV battery may have longer coverage under emissions warranty. In states that have adopted the California Emission Control Warranty, coverage is 15 years/150,000 miles for performance and defect, and the hybrid battery is covered for 10 years/150,000 miles. Refer to applicable Warranty and Maintenance Guide for details.
  • Powertrain: 60 months/60,000 miles (engine, transmission/transaxle, drive system, seatbelts and airbags).
  • Rust-Through: 60 months/unlimited miles (corrosion perforation of sheet metal).
  • Emissions: Coverages vary under Federal and California regulations. Refer to applicable Warranty and Maintenance Guide for details.
  • Toyota Care – Complimentary maintenance plan with the purchase or lease of every new Toyota. For 2 years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first, every new Toyota will be covered for all normal factory scheduled service, as well as 24/7 roadside assistance
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About Author: John Addison

Founder of the Clean Fleet Report, author of Save Gas, Save the Planet. John writes about electric cars, renewable energy, and sustainability.

6 thoughts on “2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid Test Drive and Review

  1. Pingback: How to Find the Right Affordable Electric Car | E-motec.net
  2. Wattson
    October 2, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Regarding the range of your Leaf, initially I had the same disappointment of approx 65 miles range when taking longer trips on the freeway using the a/c. I finally got around to checking my tire pressure for the first time and found them to be around 28-30psi. The tire sidewall said 44psi was the max, so I pumped up to 42 and have been getting 90 miles range since with about 50% mixed freeway and a/c usage. I also slowed down to 65 mph, which is a big factor in extending range (and really hard to do since I love to go faster).
    I hope this is helpful.

    • John Addison
      October 5, 2011 at 9:43 am

      Thank you for the excellent tip at Clean Fleet Report about increasing LEAF tire pressure. We welcome your comments about other electric car articles. Feel free to send me a guest article about your experience in driving the Nissan LEAF.

  3. Wattson
    October 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    You mention that the plug-in Prius will be eligible for the California white single-occupancy carpool sticker, but I don’t think this is correct. When I went through the process for getting the stickers for my Leaf the DMV said only the Leaf and the Honda natural gas vehicles were able to get them, and that the Volt couldn’t. If the Volt truly can’t then I imagine the Prius would be even less likely to qualify.

    • John Addison
      October 5, 2011 at 9:47 am

      Thanks for your question about the Prius Plug-in being eligible for the CA HOV White Sticker. Confirming what a Toyota expert told me, the Prius PHV is SULEV and eligible. Here is the DMV link http://dmv.ca.gov/vr/decal.htm

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