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This Prius has a bit more spark

The Prius is the world’s most successful gasoline-electric hybrid brandwith more than two million copies sold since its 1997 launch.

The Prius is the world’s most successful gasoline-electric hybrid brand with more than two million copies sold since its 1997 launch. The fuel-frugal Toyota celebrates its 15th anniversary by adding a wagon to the lineup as well as the Plug-in Hybrid, or PHV, which arrives in early 2012.

Although similar to a regular Prius, the PHV has been engineered to offer some advantages of a pure electric vehicle as well as the convenience of a typical hybrid. The result should be significantly improved city fuel economy. For short hops, or gridlocked commuter traffic, the PHV can be driven for up to about 25 kilometres at speeds up to 100 km/h in driver-selectable electric mode.

But when a heavier foot on the accelerator is called for and/or the batteries wear down, the 98-horsepower 1.8-litre gas engine instantly kicks in and both power systems provide the necessary thrust, the same as a regular Prius model. The batteries can also be partially replenished from energy captured through braking.

Determining if the PHV is worth the extra cost will ultimately depend on your particular driving habits, such as distance travelled and your ability to baby the throttle around town. For most people, the popular standard Prius will do just fine, while the PHV takes conserving gas and preserving the environment to a whole new level.



Motor


The electrical portion of the powertrain consists of the usual 60-kilowatt (80-horsepower) motor that’s energized by a lithium-ion battery pack located beneath the cargo floor. That’s the same spot as the standard Prius’s nickel-metal-hydrid batteries. The advantage of lithium-ion technology is that it’s lighter, more energy efficient and holds a charge for longer periods.

As with all Prius models, power is directed to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission.

Charging

Beyond operating for a modest distance on electric power, the PHV can be replenished in a relatively quick 2.5-to-three hours using 120-volt household current. Toyota provides a 4.5-metre-long cable that plugs into a connection hidden behind a spring-loaded door on the passenger-side rear quarter panel. Buyers have the option of a 240-volt outlet that cuts charging time to 1.5 hours, however they will have to opt for the “Level 2” home charging station available through Toyota dealers.



Fuel efficiency


As for the all-important question of fuel consumption, Toyota claims the PHV earns the equivalent of 1.75 l/100 km on electric power alone (presumably based on typical power costs) and about 3.7 l/100 km when functioning in hybrid mode, compared with 3.7 city and 4.0 highway for a standard Prius.