2015 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
The Toyota Prius's legendary status is, by now, well-established. It's by far the best-known hybrid in the world, and remains the most highly-rated car for fuel efficiency sold in the U.S. without a plug. The range-extended electric Chevy Volt, on the other hand, lets its drivers cover 35 to 40 miles a day on pure electric power (assuming the plug it in to recharge), after which it becomes a more conventional hybrid.
The Volt, in other words, offers the superior driving experience of an electric car while eliminating the range anxiety of a battery-only car. And in its early years, the Volt drew many customers out of their Priuses--perhaps indicating that the hybrid-electric vehicle is no longer the pinnacle of technology chic among vehicles. Instead, that mantle has passed to cars that can plug in to recharge their batteries.
Each car is now reaching the end of its model life. Most of the details are now known about the new second-generation 2016 Chevrolet Volt, which is projected to offer 50 miles of electric-only range and 41 mpg when using its engine. That car will go on sale in the third or fourth quarter of this year. Meanwhile, though Toyota has been less forthcoming about its plans, an entirely redesigned fourth-generation Toyota Prius will be unveiled sometime this fall and go on sale as a 2016 or 2017 model.
The Toyota Prius actually comes in four models: the classic and recognizable Prius Liftback, a Prius V wagon, a smaller Prius C subcompact, and a plug-in hybrid version of the original liftback. Three of the four are EPA-rated at 50 mph combined; the taller, heavier Prius V wagon comes in at 42 mpg combined.
For gas mileage, then, the Prius liftback (50 mpg) does better than the Volt (37 mpg)--when the Volt's engine is running. But a 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).
The outgoing 2015 Chevy Volt is rated at 38 miles of electric range by the EPA. As long as there's energy left in the battery, the Volt runs purely as an electric car--unlike every other plug-in hybrid, which must use its engine for maximum acceleration.
Once the pack is depleted, the Volt's gasoline engine switches on to run a generator that sends electricity to the electric motor powering the front wheels. With the engine on, the EPA rates the Volt at 37 mpg.
So who saves more gasoline? 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. Plugging in to recharge the lithium-ion battery takes the Volt up to 9 hours on regular 120-Volt household current, or about 4 hours using a specially installed 240-volt Level 2 charging station. The conventional hybrid Prius doesn't plug in at all. And if you're somewhere in the middle, the math gets complex.
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. 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.
The Volt and Prius shape a basic profile. Both have a smooth front, flat sides, a roofline that stays high and then drops off abruptly, and two-piece rear windows: a long, almost horizontal panel in the upper part of the tailgate, plus a smaller vertical pane in the lower section. 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.
The Volt has a more stylish interior but uses many identical looking touch-sensitive switches on the center stack, which require more concentration to operate properly. 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 seats are comfortable and there's plenty of room inside, however.
Both cars score well on safety tests. The Prius doesn't has earned four- and five-star results from the federal government, as well as mostly 'good' ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and for 2015, it's a Top Safety PIck+. The Volt also earns top scores from both agencies, though it comes in as a Top Safety Pick (without the +). And its owners love it: The Volt received the highest owner-approval scores of any car in GM's history.
If you're looking for the car with the absolute highest fuel economy on the market, and you're not ready to make the leap to a car with a plug, the standard Prius hybrid is clearly your choice. But if you were the kind of pioneer who bought a Prius in the early years--2000 through, say, 2004--you may be ready for your next big leap.
If you can't afford the all-electric Tesla Model S sedan, and need more flexibility than an all-electric car like the Nissan Leaf or BMW i3, the Volt should be at the top of your list.
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