Friday, April 13, 2012

Is the Toyota Prius Plug-in a game changer?

Toyota-Prius-Plug-in-socket_thumb So, it’s finally here: the hybrid Toyota Prius that will now do what people have expected the Prius to do all along. Available to order now, the Prius Plug-in arrive in showrooms on 9 July, to give extended electric running of nearly 15 miles instead of 15 seconds without the whining petrol engine kicking in and spoiling the green dream.

It is able to travel so much further on battery power alone because the battery is both bigger and, at last, modern lithium-ion rather than the older nickel metal hybrid design used by other Prius. This does mean it’s more expensive – from £32,895 – but low emissions mean it qualifies for the government grant named after it: £5,000 of Plug-in Car Grant takes the list price down to £27,895.

CO2 emissions of just 49g/km are the reason for its eligibility, which also bring combined fuel consumption of 128mpg. And it’s sheer fuel economy, rather than the new Prius Plug-in’s list price or low CO2 emissions, that is likely to prove the most noteworthy aspect of Toyota’s latest green car.

Remember, the Prius is the best-selling hybrid on sale here, by far, and is the car most associated with the hybrid movement. This new model is thus a significant introduction, because it will gain awareness from so many people, and also be directly presented to so many current owners who may be willing to consider it.

Toyota doesn’t have a mountain of awareness to tackle, because the awareness is already there. All it has to do is quote the combined economy figure – more than 55mpg better than the standard car! – and wait for the buzz to build. The list price? It’s high, but not ridiculously so. It’s still manageable, and the Prius remains a car people are familiar with. People WILL pay it, which is why its announcement is newsworthy.

Toyota isn’t mean, either. Owners also get plenty of kit for their money, with showroom draws including de rigueur LED daytime running lights, a boomsome JBL stereo, sat nav and DAB radio. All premium features that will draw people in from the high-end models this car is priced to compete with.

Indeed, it could be argued Toyota’s better off charging a few thousand more for it if it means these extras can be included, rather than not having the added advantage of their showroom appeal and disappointing people who see it as little different to an ordinary Toyota. In the fledgling super-green car sector, details like this matter.

Another neat trick: there’s a unique colour available, called Sky Blue Metallic. This’ll ensure Plug-in Prius drivers stand out from normal owners, and if it just so happens to mimic the special blue used by the VW Golf Bluemotion – which puts out 50g/km more CO2 – then so be it…

n the showroom, makes things easy for owners (and helps dealers market a price £5k lower than they otherwise could) by sorting out the logistics of arranging the grant. Owners don’t pay full list price and then claim back their £5k: rather, the Toyota dealer applies for it on their behalf, so that sub-£28k price really is the transaction price.

The firm says experience in handling scrappage deals means it can do this speedily and efficiently – this is a logistical issue easily overlooked, and one that can delay deliveries to customers, so it’s of note that Toyota feels so confident it has the process cracked.

The concept of charging their car up is something owners will have to get used to, though (‘what, fill it with fuel AND electric power?’). Toyota includes as standard five metre cable for this, which is stored in a compartment beneath the boot floor. Topping up the lithium ion batteries takes around three hours from a regular plug socket – more than manageable.

But crucially, it’s a concept that won’t punish if you get it wrong. Like the Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt, it is an electric car without any form of range anxiety. The electric range is small, but likely to be enough for a lot of inner city motorists: more importantly, it allows everyone to benefit from the full range of zero-emissions running, rather than not undertaking a journey through fear of running low.

Here’s the thing: this may well prove to be the only way people will buy into electric cars. The vast majority will not take the leap into a full-commitment EV-only, but if they are given the opportunity to, essentially, ‘try before they buy’, they may find electric-only motoring suits them better than they think.

Many Chevrolet Volt owners are already boasting about how the petrol engine has not cut in for months. A bit more of this, and how many will be reckoning they can do without it altogether, and make the leap into a full electric car?

Even the very fact they have to charge it up may help people understand and chime with the methodology of electric motoring. It’s amazing how new processes can eventually become habit simply through repetition. Give it a few months and the concept of plugging the car in will be no more inconvenient or unusual for the Prius Plug-in owner than actually filling it with fuel. It will simply become something that has to be done.

The Prius Plug-in may not appear to be a landmark car, but its introduction may prove to be more significant than we realise. It improves on the current model and also helps take people painlessly into the future of motoring too. It’s the halfway house to a full electric car that, thanks to the Prius’ sheer popularity, could well prove to be just the launchpad many need to buy into more.

The Green Car Website

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