Dipping a big toe in the electric wave

Wed, Aug 11, 2010, 01:00

Want an eco-friendly car with proper family practicality and a decent range? The new Toyota Prius Plug-In ticks all the boxes, writes MICHAEL McALEERMotoring Editor

IN CASE you’ve missed the hype, we’re on the cusp of an electric revolution, after more than a century of the combustion engine. However, amid the sparks and wheelspin in the battle between electric car evangelists and petrolhead luddites, the reality of electric car ownership can get lost in the mix. It ignores an understandable fear amongst the public: no one wants to get stuck with the motoring equivalent of the Betamax or Laser Disc.

While a handful of small players have offered electric cars here in the past, models from more mainstream brands are now preparing to come on stream. The Mitsubishi iMiev city car goes on sale in January promising a range of 130km on a single charge. The Nissan Leaf hatchback can now be ordered for a February delivery promising a 160km range. Renault’s all-electric version of the Fluence will follow by the end of next year. The French brand will add an all-electric supermini, the Zoe, by the middle of 2012 with a promised range of 200kms.

Meanwhile the Government is singing from the same hymn sheet with tax incentives of €5,000 on these cars. The PR spin is in full swing and advocates rightly suggest that things will only get better as battery technology improves. They use the rapid downsizing and improvement in battery capabilities for laptops and mobile phones to justify these claims. Car makers also claim that 87 per cent of European motorists do less than 60kms a day, which suggests that range shouldn’t be an issue for most.

Yet even if we don’t necessarily clock up massive mileage on a daily basis, there’s still the issue of planning recharging times into our lives.

Electric evangelists would suggest we need to wise up and plan ahead, but modern life’s just not that ordered. The reality for most of us is a life of everyday anarchy in which we try and survive. If we all planned ahead, then 1,500 motorists wouldn’t run out of petrol on the roadside each year. If our lives were more ordered we wouldn’t spend time fumbling around hotel lobbies and pubs in search of a free plug to recharge our mobiles.

It is for us, the disorganised masses, that cars need to adjust to our needs, not become yet another fulcrum that our lives need to revolve around. And that’s where the Prius plug-in comes in. We can paddle along with the electric wave, comforted by the fact there’s a mechanical equivalent of water wings sitting up front when we have to go that extra unplanned mile or simply forget to plug in.

It’s about mixing battery power with ever-more efficient engines, and evolving towards replacing the engine. That may be with anything from a hydrogen-powered fuel cell to a perpetual motion machine. Who cares, so long as it’s efficient and can recharge the battery independently without having to plug it for hours every 200km.

In the plug-in Prius, you have a 1.8-litre petrol engine combined with a 60Kw electric motor that’s powered from a new lithium-ion battery. You can run it like a regular hybrid or plug it in and charge the battery direct, after which it will run on electric-only power up to speeds of 100km/h and up to a range of 20kms. The recharge time takes 90 minutes.

So how did we get on in the plug-in Prius for a week? Well, like all these eco-cars, the first few miles are driven with an air of eco-smugness. We whisper along through the city streets, the rumble of tyres and a little whistle of the wind on the wing mirrors are the only sounds we emit as we cross the city.

You change your focus when driving eco-cars; transfixed on the fuel economy figure. The radio and the air-con are switched off to reduce energy use. Less than 10 minutes in the car and I’ve become an eco-zealot.

The Prius scurries about town for 20kms of full electric power. There’s no drop in acceleration and even as we hit the outskirts of the city at speeds of 100km/h, there’s not a peep from the engine. Once on the M1, however, the engine kicks in, though the only noticeable difference is the noise. For the rest of the journey it’s the mix of hybrid power that will get us home. By then our fuel average figure is still about 3.2l/100km (88.3mpg); quite impressive given that about 15 minutes of our journey was spent on the motorway at 120km/h. Once home, it’s straight in with the plug-lead for a full charge.

Next morning and we’re back to the commute. In terms of motorway machismo, the Prius has often been the butt of jokes yet it is no slouch. It might take 11.4 seconds to hit 100km/h from a standing start, but it feels faster, even if the engine whine with the throttle on the floor is annoying and tinny.

We use our full 20kms of electric power in the morning before we hit the motorway but the eco-mood has passed and it’s hard to get too enthused about economy figures at 7am in the crawling traffic on the M1. The radio is on and the air-con is going full guns. Our average is now 3.5l/100km (80.7 mpg) and by the time we’re in the city gridlock it’s up to 3.7l/100km. As the odometer hits 100kms, we’ve increased to 4l/100km. The good news is that as the week goes on we’re getting 21kms of all-electric driving on each 90-minute charge.

After five days and 595kms the fuel warning light starts flickering. A 20-litre fill-up gives us just over half a tank. When we return the Prius to Toyota’s office on Monday morning, we’ve driven 773kms in the car, achieving an average of 4.6l/100km (61.4 mpg). An estimated 10 per cent of our time was spent running entirely on electric.

After a week in the plug-in, we can happily report that there’s nothing exceptional about owning this car. And that’s why it will work. It’s got all the niggling flaws of the regular Prius, but no more. It requires no change to your daily habits, except remembering to plug it in for 90 minutes every night. And if you forget – or can’t be bothered – then no sweat. The hybrid system will prevail. You’re not going to be stranded.

THE REAL attraction that will keep you charging up is the cost. It’s estimated to cost just 40 cents for the 90-minute charge that gives you 20kms of emissions-free motoring. Even comparing that to the often unreachable official fuel economy figures for an efficient diesel it makes economic sense.

Take a VW Golf 1.6-litre TDI with an official fuel economy figure of 3.8l/100km. That averages about 94 cents for a 20km run. And that’s only if you can manage to match the official figures. With the Prius plug-in there’s no issue: the engine simply isn’t running.

And that’s the real attraction of these cars. It’s the bridge to an electric world that requires no real lifestyle changes and only financial savings to the motorist. It’s a family car that should cost no more than €35,000 and offers the space and comfort to compete with the current crop of non-electric cars.

Full electric models are the way forward. And the range will get better. It’s reckoned that engineers are working towards a goal of a viable 350km range for batteries by the middle to end of the decade. That will make electric cars a viable reality for motorists.

But for now cars like the plug-in Prius combat range anxiety and whereas the all-electric models work well as second cars in a household, in recessionary Ireland, that luxury is limited.

What most families want is an eco-friendly car that doesn’t force them to plan their motoring trips like a military campaign, offers proper family practicality, and a decent range. The Prius plug-in ticks all these boxes. Early adopters may take the plunge with cars like the Nissan Leaf, but for the rest, the electric plug-in hybrid mix is the ideal all-rounder until ranges improve.


Power: 1.8-litre combined with 60kw electric motor

Official fuel consumption: 2.6 l/100km (108.6 mpg)

Emissions: 59 g/km

0-100km/h: 11.4 secs

Top speed: 180km/h

On sale here: Early 2012

PRICE: Unconfirmed but estimated to be between €30,000 and €35,000