The best electric car is the one you never have to plug in—a hybrid electric car like the Toyota Prius.
It has all of the advantages of an electric car including the ability to be plugged in (if you buy the plug-in version) and run on battery alone for about 25 miles without ever having to worry about plugging in because it can recharge itself, as you drive.
It also has twice the range of any purely electric car more than 600 miles–so you don’t have to stop for gas very often, either.
It’s an example of an electric car that makes a lot of sense, which is probably why so many people have bought one.
What It Is
The Prius is the original hybrid–the first-mass produced partially-electric car.
Like an electric car, this compact-sized hatchback has a battery pack and electric motors. Unlike an electric car, it never runs out of charge or range unless you run out of gas. This eliminates the main problem besetting electric cars, which is planning your drive around range due to the time and inconvenience involved in recharging electric cars.
The Prius also addresses another electric car problem, cost. You won’t spend a cent on gasoline if you buy an EV, but you’ll spend a fortune on the EV. The least expensive model, Nissan’s Leaf, costs $27,400 (for the base version with a smaller battery and just 150 miles of range). A Leaf with a higher-capacity battery and 226 miles of range lists for $32,400. Other “entry-level” EVs like the Chevy Bolt are similarly pricey.
A Prius stickers $24,525 to start for the L Eco trim. It saves you about $4K at the starting gate vs. the lowest-priced EV currently available (Nissan’s Leaf) and leaves aside the cost of a 150-mile range (unless you spend another $4K-plus for the one that goes 226 miles).
You can also get all-wheel-drive, something rival hybrids like the Hyundai Ioniq ($23,400 to start) don’t offer. The cost so equipped is $27,135 for the LE AWD e-trim.
A plug-in variant called Prime is also available. This one differs from the standard Prius hybrid that can plug into a household outlet to recharge its batteries, using no gas to recharge the batteries. It can also travel about 25 miles on battery power alone, just like an electric car. But when it runs out of electric-only range, you don’t have to stop for a charge. Like the standard Prius, the Plug-in also recharges its batteries as you drive, using the gas engine that forms the other side of the hybrid drivetrain as a carry-it-with-you generator.
Base price for the Prius Prime is $28,200.
To visually jazz up the Prius a bit, Toyota has added a Nightshade package to the list of available options. It includes black-anodized wheels and trim plus rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry, a heated steering wheel, and simulated leather seat covers and door panel surfaces.
- An electric car that makes practical, economic, and environmental.
- Hatchback layout provides ample room for carrying large, unwieldy items (such as a 4×4 fence post).
- AWD is available, same as other hybrids in the class (Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro) don’t offer it.
What’s Not So Good
- Center-mounted LCD touchscreen interface is not easy to use while driving.
- Lacks the quickness that comes standard with most EVs.
- Hyundai Ioniq costs less and is more conservatively styled.
Under The Hood
Every Prius comes with the same 1.8-liter, 121-horsepower gas engine on the one side of the hybrid drivetrain paired up with a battery pack/electric motors (on the other side of the drivetrain).
The standard Prius comes with a smaller battery pack that assists the gas engine in propelling the car and powering accessories when the gas engine is not running, as when the car is stationary or during deceleration/coasting. The standard Prius can also be driven about a mile at speeds up to about 25 MPH on battery power.
The plug-in Prius has a higher-capacity battery pack that can propel the car at normal road speeds for about 25 miles. Its battery pack can also be charged by plugging it into a charger. But like the standard Prius, you don’t have to charge it. Both versions carry around their own generator, the 1.8-liter gas engine, which not only recharges the battery pack, it prevents the battery pack from being emptied of charge.
This is a huge hybrid plus rarely discussed.
Because electric cars rely solely on their batteries for propulsion, the batteries are often heavily discharged. This discharge/recharge cycling is what ages a battery pack, much in the way that hammering a gas engine all the time usually results in that engine blowing blue smoke out the tailpipe after a short while.
In a hybrid, the batteries are always maintained at a certain level of charge, reducing wear and tear. They’re also worked less hard because they’re only partially responsible for propelling the car and powering everything in the car as in an electric car (including the heater).
This is important if you care about saving money because electric car battery packs are extremely expensive. A hybrid’s battery pack is less expensive because it’s not as big and the expense of having to replace it is farther-down-the-road because it lives an easier life than an electric car’s battery pack.
Interestingly, the standard Prius has more range and gets slightly better gas mileage than the plug-in version: 58 city/53 highway (and 655 miles in city driving) for the standard model vs. 55 city, 53 highway (and 627 miles of range in city driving) for the plug-in Prime. This is a function of the plug-in’s heavier battery pack.
But, the plug-in can be plugged-in, which means not having to burn any gas to “top off” the battery pack. And because it can be driven about 25 miles without burning any gas, it is possible to burn very little gas, assuming your trip is within the 25 miles of electric-only range.
On The Road
Neither version of the Prius is quick, zero to 60 takes more than 10 seconds, but unlike electric cars, the Prius just keeps on going long after the EV has had to stop and makes you wait while it recharges.
The standard model’s near-700-mile range is stupendous. It is nearly twice the range of the longest-range electric cars; models like Tesla 3 with its extra-cost long-range (358 miles) battery pack for half as much as it costs to buy a Tesla 3 with its long-range battery pack ($50,990).
Certainly, the Tesla gets to 60 in less than half the time it takes the Prius to get there. But is this a performance contest? Weren’t electric cars supposed to be all about increasing efficiency?
Arguably, it is precisely because EVs are so inefficient and impractical that they had to resort to touting how quick they are. There is nothing wrong with quickness; above all, it is fun. But if it costs a lot of money and wastes a lot of your time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Driving the Prius is much like driving an ordinary economy car. The hybrid drivetrain doesn’t call attention to itself while you’re driving unless you roll the windows down and listen. Then you may notice the silence, while in EV mode. The gas engine is automatically cycled off and on, and you can watch the flow in real-time via the display in the main gauge cluster or the larger LCD touchscreen mounted in the center stack.
The Prius differs from an ordinary economy car and from other hybrids, such as the Hyundai Ioniq and its Kia-cousin, the Niro. It has a funky and not very functional interior layout. The main gauge cluster is located equidistant between the driver and front seat passenger at the top of the dash pad, which is okay because it’s still in the driver’s line of sight and provides the pertinent information needed, such as speed and fuel remaining.
The large, centrally mounted LCD touchscreen that comes standard in the top-of-the-line Limited trim is another matter.
Tesla pioneered this kind of interface and Toyota seems to be emulating Tesla in this respect. But here’s the problem: Many necessary operational controls. For example, the temperature/fan speed settings practically require you to stop paying attention to the road while you pay attention to the LCD screen, making sure you tap/swipe the right control. This is almost impossible to do without looking, which is distracting when you’re driving.
The good news is the oversized/poorly situated 11.6-inch Tesla-emulating touchscreen is optional. So you can avoid it. The standard L, LE, and XLE trims come with a smaller 7-inch touchscreen and more ergonomic push-button controls for most accessories that can be easily operated without taking your eyes off the road.
At The Curb
The Prius is the most recognizable hybrid, deliberately so.
Toyota purposely designed it to look, unlike, other cars. Some like the car’s looks. Some do not like them. Its styling can be polarizing, but it hasn’t been a problem for Toyota, which has sold this car in numbers far exceeding those of any rival and all-electric cars, combined.
Something almost everyone will like about this car is its expansive side glass, which tapers downward toward the front of the car so that by the time it reaches the driver/passenger side, the view to the side is superior vs. many other modern cars. The door tops are low enough that you can almost rest your elbows on them with the windows rolled down, too.
The hatchback layout greatly ups the practicality quotient by making it feasible to use this car for things Toyota probably never intended it to be used for, such as carrying home a 4x4x6 fence post from Lowes, with the rear hatch closed.
It’s so affordable, you can afford to buy more than just efficiency. The XLE trim comes loaded with heated seats covered in Softex-simulated leather, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry, wireless phone charging, and so on, plus that near-700-mile range, without the wait for about the same as Nissan wants for the base-trim Leaf without such amenities and with only 150 miles of range.
One nettle is that some desirable options, such as the 10-speaker JBL audio system that comes standard in the Limited (along with the Tesla-style touchscreen) aren’t available a la carte in the lower-priced trims.
Also, AWD is only available with the standard Prius; the plug-in version is FWD-only.
Electric-only cars are said to be better for the environment. But are they, really?
Their much larger battery packs burn up more natural resources and energy to make them. They draw more power, to recharge them. And because of all that heavy discharge-recharge cycling, their battery packs will almost certainly not last as long and so will need to be replaced sooner with another resource-gobbling/energy-hogging battery pack.
The Prius may not be 100 percent “zero emissions.” But isn’t it enough to be nearly that? Especially when EVs aren’t, really, and when their forbidding cost precludes their purchase by people who aren’t affluent enough to indulge them?
The Bottom Line
If you’d like to just drive without having to constantly think about how soon you’ll have to stop, the Prius might just be the right electric car for you.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.