Toyota Prius Vs. Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
Buyers looking for the greenest of cars often default to the Toyota Prius, but with the Chevrolet Volt entering its third year on the market and a new plug-in version of the Prius launched early in 2012, the choice is getting more complicated.
So which one would meet your personal mix of needs? Regrettably, the answer turns out to be: Well, it depends.
The Chevy Volt went on sale in December 2010 as a 2011 model, and in its first year, about 7,500 of the range-extended electric car--the first such car ever offered commercially by a big auto company--were sold. Its lithium-ion battery pack is now rated at 38 miles of electric range by the EPA. Once the pack is depleted, the Volt's gasoline engine automatically switches on to generate electricity to the front-wheel drive electric motor. Note that the engine doesn't power the wheels directly (with one small exception), but turns a generator that produces electricity to replace that provided by the battery. When the Volt is operating that way, the EPA rates it at 37 mpg.
The third-generation Toyota Prius liftback is the definitive and best-known hybrid vehicle. It now comes in four models, three of them new for 2012: a Prius V wagon, a smaller Prius C subcompact, and a plug-in hybrid version of the original liftback. The Prius liftback and Prius C are EPA-rated at 50 mph combined, the taller, heavier Prius V wagon comes in at 42 mpg combined, and then there's the Prius Plug-In Hybrid (to give it its full name).
So for gas mileage, the conventional hybrid version of the Prius liftback (50 mpg) does better than the Volt (37 mpg)--when the Volt's engine is running. But the standard Prius gets only about 1 mile of electric range, versus the Volt's 25 to 40 miles (depending on speed, temperature, use of climate control, and other factors). Then there's the Prius plug-in, which falls in the middle, with 50 mpg as well when it's running as a hybrid, plus 6 to 15 miles of battery range--but only at speeds below roughly 50 mph, and under lighter loads. Hammer the accelerator in the plug-in Prius, and it'll switch on the engine--unlike the Volt, whose battery is capable of powering the car regardless of what you ask it to, until it's depleted.
The shape of the Volt is similar to the well-known Prius, which can be pegged from 100 feet. Both have a smooth front, flat sides, a roofline that stays high and then drops off abruptly, and two-piece rear windows--with a long, almost horizontal panel in the upper part of the tailgate, plus a smaller vertical pane in the lower section. Each car's design has supporters and detractors, but the Prius is bigger inside and can seat five, while the Volt won't hold more than four people--and has less load space as well.
They're very different behind the wheel, though. The standard hybrid Prius is still primarily a gasoline car, and while it can accelerate from rest to about 30 mph solely on electricity, that takes a light foot on the accelerator and a gradual gathering of speed. Otherwise, the engine will switch on, as it will at first when the car is cold. And the plug-in Prius is the same, though it provides a much longer all-electric range and runs in electric-only mode at higher speeds. But the Volt runs electrically all the time, so its power is smooth, quiet, and continuous under any circumstance, regardless of whether the engine is running or not.
Gas mileage of all three versions falls somewhat in cold weather, as does electric range. (Battery packs of any size are like humans; they prefer to be at about 70 degrees F.) We confirmed that the Prius returns about 50 mpg in real-world usage.But the actual mileage that Prius Plug-In and Volt owners get will depend entirely on how much and how often they plug in to recharge the battery pack. That process takes the Volt up to 9 hours on regular 110-Volt household current, or about 4 hours using a specially installed 240-Volt Level 2 charging station, versus about 3 hours for the Prius Plug-In. The conventional hybrid Prius, of course, doesn't plug in at all.
A Volt owner who does only 30 miles a day and recharges every night may not switch on his engine for weeks at a time. (Volts actually ask permission of their drivers to switch on the engine for a few minutes every few months, to circulate the fluids and prevent damage to due lack to use.) Owners may easily record "gas mileage" of 100 to 400 miles per gallon under those circumstances. But Volt owners who drive 50 or more miles every day will be powered by a mix of grid electricity and gasoline, so their mileage will be 37 mpg or somewhat higher.
So who saves more gasoline? As we said, it depends. If you do 100 miles a day, the Prius hybrid wins. If you do 30 miles a day and plug in religiously, the Volt wins. And if you're somewhere in the middle, the math gets really complex and the Prius Plug-In Hybrid may come out ahead in some combinations of usage.
Other considerations: The Volt has a more stylish interior but has many identical looking touch-sensitive switches on the center stack, which some drivers say require more concentration to operate properly. And each occupant sits in a defined bucket seat, even in the rear, where the battery pack precludes a third seating position. The Prius interior has a sort of Space Age design and is full of patterned hard plastics, with simple numeric and diagram readings in the upper Multi-Information Display at the base of the windshield. The "flying buttress" high-level console that sweeps down from the dash is impressionistic but somewhat impractical. The seats are comfortable and there's plenty of room inside, however.