We took the two top contenders in the plug-in slash hybrid slash electric car wars and put them head to head. The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric and the Toyota Prius Pug-in Hybrid Vehicle (PHV) come from two completely different engineering philosophies but the outcome is very similar on paper as it relates to how you feed them.
Both cars plug in for an electric charge which gives them a modicum of electric only driven range. Both cars have a gasoline engine which comes into play once that charge is depleted. Depending on your daily drive patterns each car can act strictly as an electric vehicle(EV) or as a hybrid of both.
The Chevrolet Volt is advertised and sold as an electric car with an on-board generator powered by gasoline. The battery takes up to 14 hours to charge on a 120V outlet, shorter with a 240V fast charger. The battery will get you between 35-40 miles before it runs down. When that happens an on board gasoline powered generator fires up and gives you additional electricity to keep you going for as long as you want to buy gas.
With the Toyota Prius PHV, you plug it in for a 3 hour charge on your 120V outlet which gives you about 12 miles of electric-vehicle (EV) range at speeds up to 62 mph. Once that range is depleted the PHV goes back in to a normal Toyota Prius hybrid driving mode.
If it happens your daily round about fits into the 12 mile range, then you can conceivably drive the PHV as an EV almost infinitely provided you keep it plugged in when parked. The EPA rates it at 95 mpge on all-electric mode and 50 mpg combined city/highway in hybrid only mode. Depending on your mix of both modes you can see actual mpg easily up into the 80′s and 90′s.
We achieved 61.5 mpg in our mixed week of driving in the Prius PHV and 119 mpg with the Chevrolet Volt. The extra range afforded by the Volt’s much more robust range brought its average up considerably as we drove both cars about 40-50 miles each day in similar patterns.
Behind the wheel is where these two cars begin to take entirely separate characters. The Volt drives the same way regardless of whether you drive off the battery or the gasoline engine is powering it. This is because the engine does not power the wheels, but turns a generator that makes power for the electric drive motor. It does so very quietly and seamlessly, often you don’t even know it is running.
In day to day driving the PHV drives very much like any Toyota Prius. In EV mode the car is smooth and quiet with a reasonable amount of power on tap. The gasoline engine still fires up occasionally in cases where you have a lot of accessories on or you mash the accelerator hard.
The regenerative braking and electric motor sounds were a bit louder in the Prius PHV than in the Volt which is nearly whisper quiet. And because the Prius is a hybrid which uses power from the engine to drive the wheels off and on, your get occasional roughness as it the powertrain cycles from one power source to the other.
Handling and ride were another area the cars stood apart. We found the Volt to be happy spirited around town and on windy roads in a way that rewards you when asking it to play. The Prius on the other hand seemed to be slow to steer and heavy in feel, not designed for spirited driving. The Volt has a feel and suppleness more in keeping with its $40,000 price range than did the Prius.
The interior of the Volt is one of high style and quality in a way that tells you the people who designed this car wanted to make it special. The look is futuristic without being gimmicky and material quality is top notch. Hitting the blue LED power button lights up the dash and a futuristic chime greets you happily. Easy to use, a traditional shift lever is found on the center console.
Both the instrument panel and center stack use color liquid crystal displays with very well laid out graphics. There seems to be just the right buttons to compliment the touch screen controls to make it all intuitive. HVAC and audio controls can be controlled both by standard controls and touch screen menus.
The Volt’s leather trimmed seats were so comfortable, the steering wheel feeling just right in your hands. Here in Phoenix it is already into the 90 degree temperatures so we used the electrically driven air-conditioning prodigiously to double happy comfort.
The interior of our Toyota Prius PHV Advanced had a tastefully executed monotone charcoal theme that was a richly inviting place to be with the SofTex synthetic leather. While we would have liked the genuine article in a car costing $40,000, it only lacked the aroma that cowhide gives. The heated seats were comfortable and power adjustable for the driver which was a welcome feature.
The Advanced trim grade comes with the top end navigation and audio system from the JBL Greenline which includes Toyota’s Entune infotainment interface for your smart phone. Included also is the aforementioned rich SofTex synthetic leather interior with heated seats, high tech auto leveling LED headlamps with cleaning nozzles, and a futuristic head-up display in the dash.
The top line sound system in the Prius PHV was a bit of a disappointment, never really sounding of quality regardless of how we tried to adjust its settings. And while the head-up display was a cute gee-whiz cool feature that displayed speed and core information on the windshield at your eye line, its only about 10″ from the real instrument display.
Also part of the Prius PHV’s Advanced trim package are fog lights and an auto-dimming rear view mirror with Homelink. A key feature we liked was a very helpful dynamic radar cruise control system that automatically speed compensates when you get stuck in traffic. We loved it on the 101 freeway at rush hour, every car should come with this.
Pricing on our two test cars was similar. Our Volt was fully loaded with the $1,995 premium audio system with navigation which sounded excellent. Also optioned was the aforementioned heated leather seats which are part of the $1395 premium trim package. All said the total came to $43,880 including destination.
The most expensive Prius, the PHV starts out at $32,000. Our Prius PHV Advanced model is the top of the line, loaded with every imaginable option which brought the sticker price to a stratospheric $40,285 including destination.
The Volt qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit while the Prius PHV qualifies for a $1,500 tax credit. Both cars qualify for a number of state level tax rebates too including a $2,500 credit for both in the state of California. We feel that given these balancing powers, the pricing on each car comparatively is almost a push.
There is no question that each car shoots for the same target as it relates to efficiency and greenness, but each has taken a remarkably different path to get there. They both come in as pricey cars that you have to want as much for its ingenuity and its statement as for their energy cost savings.
In our opinion the Volt offers a stronger sense of style, handling acumen and overall enjoyability than does the Prius PHV. When you get out and walk away from the Volt you catch yourself wanting to look back at it. There is no question the designers at GM went out of their way to make this car special. The only major complaint is that it only seats four people.
The Prius PHV on the other hand will easily win over those who worry about the considerable headlines the Volt has garnered whether they be consequential or not. While it has the new plug-in capability, the car is based on Toyota’s tried and proven Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain which has proven bulletproof over the last ten years.