Electric vehicles are maturing through their adolescence, and just like in middle school, some members of the class are developing faster. Tesla and Chevrolet now have electric cars that will travel more than 200 miles per charge, but the vast majority of battery-powered cars are still limited to a 60-to-90-mile range. In the next decade, the electric car promises to blossom into something that doesn’t require sacrifices in practicality or price when compared with a gas-fueled car, but until the EV’s pimples clear up, we have plug-in hybrids.
With both a battery and a gas tank, plug-in hybrids strive to be everything to everyone, especially buyers who drive too much to deal with range limitations or who don’t want to spend much time plugged into a charger. The battery pack provides some electric-only operation while the gas tank and engine keep things moving when the battery is tapped. Chevrolet’s first Volt could travel 38 miles on its battery; after that, the engine would kick on to drive the car. Toyota, the leader in hybrid sales, also sold a plug-in version of its ubiquitous Prius; it featured a lithium-ion battery pack and could travel 11 miles on electric-only power before burning any gas.
Chevy’s and Toyota’s plug-ins are now entering their second generation, and both offer greater electric-only range and improved performance. Chevrolet’s Volt now has a larger, 18.4-kWh battery that weighs 21 pounds less than its predecessor’s, uses fewer cells, and delivers more than 40 miles of EV range. Inside the transaxle are two motor/generators. While the combined gas and electric power output is unchanged from the previous Volt, GM’s redesign of the motors and the gearbox increases efficiency and helps the new car shed 100 pounds.
When the battery reaches a predetermined low state in the Volt, the new aluminum-block 1.5-liter four with 101 horsepower starts up. This naturally aspirated engine runs in the Atkinson cycle for efficiency’s sake and is lighter than the iron-block 1.4-liter it replaces. Even when the Volt switches to hybrid mode, the battery isn’t completely depleted. By leaving some electricity in reserve, the electric motors can add to the four-cylinder’s 101 horses to ensure that the Volt maintains the same 149 horsepower no matter the mode.
Toyota’s second-gen plug-in Prius (rechristened the Prius Prime) follows the Volt’s tack. Toyota doubled the battery capacity to 8.8 kWh, which more than doubles the range to 25 miles. The lithium-ion battery pack lives under the cargo area and powers the two electric motor/generators inside the transaxle, which can combine for 68 kW of output, or 91 horsepower. That’s a far more useful number than the old Prius Plug-In’s 51-hp electric-only effort.
When the juice stops flowing in the Prius Prime, a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four with 95 horsepower makes its entrance. As in the Chevy, Toyota leaves some battery capacity in reserve to allow the electric motors to contribute to acceleration and support the gasoline engine. Unlike the Volt, though, the Prius Prime makes more power in hybrid mode than in EV mode, or 121 combined horsepower.
Although these plug-in hybrids are conceptually similar, the cars wrapped around the technology are vastly different. To help us dissect these differences and to see whose plug-in works better, we drove them together in stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic, on freeway slogs, and even into the canyons bordering the city. One emerged as a clear winner, both as something we’d like to drive and as an EV stopgap.
Let’s get something out of the way right up front: The Prius Prime is unattractive. How something so graceless, gawky, and odd emerged from a company as conservative as Toyota is shocking. Its design is so off-putting, it’s almost an anti-car statement. Designers often draw inspiration from ordinary objects, or from architecture, nature, and so on. In Blue Magnetism paint—a metallic teal—the thing appears to have been inspired by a disfigured puffer fish, a turquoise ring you’d find in a New Mexico gas station, and a 1958 Edsel. Perhaps that’s why the wind refuses to touch it. How else can you explain the Prius Prime’s excellent 0.25 drag coefficient?
At least when you’re in it, you can’t see it. Hit the starter button, and the 11.6-inch center screen that looks like a smaller version of what’s in a Tesla Model S lights up and shows a Prius driving around a sphere while speakers plunk a few welcoming piano notes, a tune that contributor John Pearley Huffman described as “Liberace-esque.” Move the now-familiar Prius joystick into D and the Prius, with a full charge and in EV mode, pulls away with just enough poke to keep up with traffic.
Man, it’s ugly. Though the tortoise in this test, it looks like something you’d find lurking in the Mariana Trench. But its interior is roomy, airy, and well wrought.
Perched on the Prius’s comfortable vinyl seats, we felt an airiness engendered by the hatchback’s expansive windshield and tall side windows that read as a minivan’s or SUV’s panorama more than a car’s. Look in the rearview mirror, and there are two panes of glass in the hatch that make parallel parking and backing up easier. The Volt isn’t particularly difficult to see out of, but vistas abound in the Prius. The interior plastics have a pleasing grain, there’s shiny piano-black trim, and a white panel that surrounds the hybrid-mode buttons and shifter nub breaks up the dark monotony. Sit in the Prius’s back seat, and it feels larger than the Volt’s, although the Prius Prime only has seatbelts for two in the back while the Volt can seat three across. According to EPA measurements, the Prius has a big, nine-cubic-foot advantage in the cargo department, but judging by appearances, it’s only marginally larger than the Volt’s.
Using only the electric motors, the Prime hits 60 mph in 12.2 seconds. Merging onto a moving freeway proves to be a challenge, as it takes 8.2 seconds to go from 50 to 70 mph. When pressed to merge, the Prius Prime comes across as a big golf cart, which isn’t what you want when you’re aiming for a space between 18-wheelers.
It’s not in a C/D editor’s nature to slow down unless the radar detector goes off, but with so little speed to be had, the Prius Prime persuades you to drive it to maximize efficiency. So plan ahead, be gentle on the brakes to fully harvest regenerated electricity, and accelerate calmly. What’s the rush, Fangio?
There are three levels of accelerator sensitivity: power, normal, and eco. It’s best left in normal since power only gives false hope. Drive it as intended, and we found that it will go 22 miles on a full charge. Recharging it on a household 120-volt outlet with 8 amps of current takes about five hours; expect to halve that time on 240 volts.
Hybrid mode can be manually selected to save the battery’s charge for later, but it switches on automatically when the battery runs down or if speeds exceed 84 mph. With both power sources contributing, there’s that additional 30 horsepower to be had. After two acceleration runs using only electric power, subsequent runs caused the engine to kick on between 50 and 60 mph to provide additional boost. Our EV acceleration numbers are from the first two purely electric runs. Acceleration improves when both power sources are humming along in hybrid mode, but this is still a slow car. In hybrid mode, the run to 60 mph takes 10.2 seconds versus the EV mode’s 12.2, and the simulated freeway merge, represented here by our 50-to-70 run, is a still-leisurely 7.0 seconds.
Potential Prius buyers might be willing to ignore the car’s stodgy acceleration. After all, what consumers in this market are looking for is fuel economy, not style, certainly. And, while it can’t quite match the Volt, the Prius Prime delivers reasonably good efficiency, achieving 52 MPGe overall.
Accept the lack of power and driving this hybrid is a laid-back experience. Only 67 decibels of noise come through at 70 mph, the steering is creamy and light, and the suspension is seemingly stuffed with goose down. Toyota equips the Prius Prime with 195/65R-15 Dunlop Enasave 01 A/S tires that were clearly chosen for their low rolling resistance and silent demeanor. Without much rubber on the road, the tires mustered only 0.76 g of roadholding, but the 184-foot stop from 70 mph isn’t far off the Volt’s 180-foot performance. The handling is minivan-like: soft, safe, and dull. On broken pavement, the suspension sends shudders into the structure that sound like a street performer drumming on a plastic bucket.
While the Prius Prime might not please those of us who love driving, Toyota’s reputation for reliability and the Prius Prime’s soothing driving experience will be compelling enough to win over fuel-obsessed buyers. Just don’t drive a Volt after signing the paperwork.
There are some major differentiators between the Volt and the Prius Prime. First and foremost is the way the Volt drives. Judging by the Chevy’s steering, brakes, and ride, it’s clear that someone involved in the Volt’s creation shares our values. The primary controls are suffused with accuracy and consistency. Clear feedback comes through the steering, the body roll is kept in check, the damping has the right dose of starch, and the structure stands up to any assaults from the road. The 403-pound battery that runs through the middle of the car lowers the center of gravity, keeping the car glued to the tarmac. Highway stability is excellent, and wind noise is minimal.
Driving made us believers. But handling isn’t your priority, you say? Well, the Volt is also a better electric car than the Prius Prime. The Volt’s larger battery provided a 45-mile range and an overall efficiency of 60 MPGe in 150 miles of driving. A recharge takes about 10 hours on a normal household outlet, dropping to five on a 240-volt charger.
Sending electricity back to the battery when decelerating is made easy, too. Leave the shifter in D or L and pull the paddle behind the wheel to activate the most aggressive regeneration mode. Lift off the accelerator, and the motors rapidly decelerate the car while increasing the amount of electricity generated. It’s so effective at erasing speed that the Volt becomes a single-pedal machine. Touching the brake pedal is only necessary for emergencies and coming to a complete stop. The Prius’s B mode is conceptually the same, but it’s not as aggressive; we found ourselves toeing for the brake pedal far more often in the Prius.
The Chevy is significantly quicker and more powerful than the Toyota, and the Volt’s performance is essentially the same whether it’s in EV or hybrid mode. A run to 60 mph takes only 7.6 seconds as an EV and 7.4 with the gas and electric power sources working together.
The Volt’s interior makes this plug-in hybrid feel like a regular member of the GM family. So, thankfully, do the chassis and the powertrain.
Still not convinced? Take a long look at the Prius and the Volt. While the Volt might look a bit generic and too much like a Hyundai Elantra, at least it doesn’t look like a protest against taste. Inside, the Volt is similarly conventional. We’d call it Malibu-plus for the way it mimics the approachability of a family sedan’s interior. Gone is the first gen’s capacitive touch switchgear; instead, you get real buttons. An eight-inch touchscreen is a familiar sight in GM cars and trucks, and it works well. Overly firm seats didn’t impress, however, and although the rear seat theoretically can hold three, there’s not much leg- or headroom back there. A small door opening makes getting in and out of the back seat difficult, too. For Uber duty, the Prius has the Volt licked.
Everywhere else, the Volt is the clear winner. It doesn’t require any sacrifices in driving pleasure or performance in the name of economy. Its styling doesn’t make an anti-car statement, and it certainly doesn’t have a large back seat, but it’s a more mature plug-in hybrid and a more satisfying car. The Volt qualifies for a federal tax credit that’s $3000 more than the Prius Prime’s ($7500 compared with $4502). That narrows but doesn’t close the Toyota’s price lead. We’d be happy to pay the extra money for the Volt. It’s worth it.
2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier
2017 Toyota Prius Prime Advanced
Price as Tested
F: 52 cu ft
R: 38 cu ft
F: 53 cu ft
R: 38 cu ft
11 cu ft
20 cu ft
2 synchronous permanent-magnet AC, 64 and 117 hp, 87 and 207 lb-ft
2 synchronous permanent-magnet AC, 31 and 71 hp, 30 and 120 lb-ft
liquid-cooled lithium-ion, 18.4 kWh
air-cooled lithium-ion, 8.8 kWh
DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 1.5-liter inline-4, 101 hp, 103 lb-ft
DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter inline-4, 95 hp, 105 lb-ft
LB Per HP
F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: torsion beam, coil springs
F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
F: 10.9-inch vented disc
R: 10.4-inch disc
F: 10.0-inch vented disc
R: 10.2-inch disc
fully defeatable, traction off
fully defeatable, traction off
Michelin Energy Saver A/S
215/50R-17 91H M+S
Dunlop Enasave 01 A/S
195/65R-15 89S M+S
C/D Test Results
¼-Mile @ MPH
16.0 sec @ 85/15.8 sec @ 88
18.6 sec @ 72/17.7 sec @ 79
Rolling Start, 5–60 MPH
Top Gear, 30–50 MPH
Top Gear, 50–70 MPH
102 mph (gov ltd)
115 mph (gov ltd, C/D est)
Braking 70–0 MPH
EPA Combined/City/Hwy, Battery Depleted
C/D 150-Mile Trip
EPA Electric Range
C/D Observed Electric Range
Tested by Tony Quiroga in California City, CA
* These objective scores are calculated from the vehicle's dimensions, capacities, rebates and extras, and/or test results.
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