2015 Toyota Prius LiftbackEnlarge Photo
For more than a decade, the Toyota Prius has been the most fuel-efficient gasoline car sold in the U.S. But the range-extended Chevrolet Volt lets drivers cover the first 40 miles on battery power, then switch to a gasoline engine for long trips. It offers the superior driving experience of an electric car while eliminating the range anxiety of a battery-only car.
The current versions of both cars are now close to the end of their lives. The thoroughly revised 2016 Chevy Volt, with a 50-mile range and a combined 42-mpg rating, will go on sale during the second half of 2015. An entirely redesigned fourth-generation Toyota Prius will be unveiled sometime this year as a 2016 or 2017 model.
The Chevy Volt is now 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.
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).
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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