Pros: Full electric mode for gas-free driving; fast recharging times; superior fuel economy in gas/electric hybrid mode; handy hatchback design

Cons: Electric mode is limited to 15 miles and 62 miles per hour; economy-car driving experience at a near-luxury price; limited availability

What's New: The Prius Plug-in enters its first full year of production for 2013, but it's unchanged from last year's debut model.

Introduction

Although Toyota has long been the leader in gas/electric hybrid technology, the 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid comes at a crucial time for the company. Competitors have been coming out of the woodwork over the past few years -- led by the Chevrolet Volt, which beat Toyota to the mainstream market with plug-in functionality for sustained electric driving. And now Ford's getting in on the action with the C-MAX Energi and upcoming Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids. From Toyota's perspective, the gauntlet has clearly been thrown.

So, is the 2013 Prius Plug-in Hybrid a compelling response? Not entirely, but we'll call it a good start. It does get Toyota back into the conversation about cutting-edge hybrid technology, and that's an important step. But with less than half the Volt's electric range, not to mention a 62-mph absolute limit in electric mode, the Prius Plug-in doesn't move the goalposts like past Prius models. Think of it as a Prius for folks who'd like a full-electric option for running errands around town.

We suspect there are quite a few folks who will find this formula compelling. For one thing, the Toyota is considerably cheaper than the Volt, checking in at under $30,000 after the full $2,500 federal tax credit has been applied. For another, it's more efficient in gas/electric hybrid mode, returning an eye-popping 50 miles per gallon. And unlike the relatively cramped Volt, the Prius Plug-in can accommodate four adults in reasonable comfort.

Don't sleep on the C-MAX Energi, though, as it's similarly priced and offers more range and capability. Also, Toyota only distributes the Prius Plug-in to dealers in 15 states (see http://www.toyota.com/prius-plug-in/ for details), so it might be hard to get your hands on one. But if you're a Prius fan in search of more electrons, the 2013 Prius Plug-in likely won't disappoint.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid comes in two trim levels: base and Advanced.

The base model provides niceties like 15-in alloy wheels, an illuminated charging port, automatic climate control, a tilt-telescopic multifunction steering wheel, keyless entry with push-button start, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver's seat, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, SiriusXM satellite radio and a 6.1-in touchscreen interface with a rearview camera and Toyota's Entune mobile-app integration.

The Advanced model will run you a gulp-inducing premium of $7,500 or so, but it does add a bunch of neat features -- including LED headlights, foglights, adaptive cruise control, "SofTex" upholstery, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, power front seats with adjustable driver lumbar support, an upgraded JBL audio system, Entune with special Plug-in Hybrid Applications and a higher-resolution 7-in touchscreen with a hard drive-based navigation system that also offers digital music storage.

In our interior evaluation, we found that the Prius Plug-in's front seats aren't particularly memorable for their comfort or support. But as in the regular Prius, we really like the way the dashboard curves toward the driver. It gives the cockpit a spaceship-like feel, which seems appropriate in such an advanced car.

The gauges, too, look ready for outer space, comprising a variety of digital readouts and diagrams describing what the hybrid powertrain is up to. Interior materials aren't luxury-grade, even in Advanced trim, but they don't seem cheap, either.

The rear quarters are a step down from what you'll find in a midsize car like the Camry Hybrid, but there's still ample room for full-sized adults back there. While the same is true of the C-MAX Hybrid, the Volt's legroom-deficient backseat doesn't measure up.

Remarkably, the Prius Plug-in offers the same 21.6-cu-ft trunk capacity as the regular Prius despite its larger battery pack. Moreover, the 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold down to accommodate larger items.

Technology

As you'd expect, the Prius Plug-in has quite a few gadgets, including an extensive collection of displays and readouts pertaining to the hybrid power system. Even the base model comes with a touchscreen interface and Bluetooth for both phone calls and streaming audio. The standard Entune system uses your smartphone's data connection to send mobile apps straight to the touchscreen, bringing cool apps like Pandora Internet radio into the driving experience. Note that if you ante up for the Advanced model, you'll get a larger, crisper touchscreen with a hard drive-based navigation system, not to mention superior JBL sound.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Like the regular Prius, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid is a front-wheel drive car that's motivated by both a 1.8-liter gasoline inline-4 and an electric motor backed by a battery pack. The main difference is that the Prius Plug-in's lithium-ion battery pack has a lot more juice than the regular nickel-metal hydride version. Total system output is unchanged from the regular Prius's 134 horsepower, so the Prius Plug-in isn't very fast. But the electric motor's 80 hp and instantaneous 150 lb-ft of torque provide sufficient oomph for scooting between stoplights in EV mode.

To be clear, the Prius Plug-in's EV mode is not a full substitute for gas/electric hybrid operation. Aside from the paltry 15-mile range, there's the matter of the 62-mph top speed, which pretty much takes electric highway driving out of the equation. Both the Volt and the C-MAX Energi can sustain highway speeds on battery power alone as long as there's enough charge.

But on the bright side, the Toyota's recharging times are just 1.5 hours with a 240-volt outlet and 3 hours with a standard 120-volt outlet. The C-MAX needs a full 7 hours for a 120-volt recharge.

On the fuel economy front, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has come up with a new scale for electric vehicles, and it rates the Prius Plug-in at 95 mpg-e, just off the Volt's 98 mpg-e pace. In gas/electric hybrid mode, the Prius Plug-in really shines, returning 50 mpg to the Chevy's 37 mpg. For reference, the C-MAX Energi checks in at 100 mpg-e and 43 mpg, respectively.

Safety

The Prius Plug-in comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front head restraints and seven airbags, including a driver knee airbag.

In government crash testing, the Prius Plug-in received an overall rating of four stars out of five, consisting of a four star rating for frontal impact protection and a five star mark in side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has not tested a Prius Plug-in, but it awarded the regular Prius the top rating of Good in all categories.

Driving Impressions

We noticed more road noise than expected in the Prius Plug-in, perhaps because the ordinarily grumbly gas engine goes completely silent in EV mode. The ride is smooth enough, but pavement seams sometimes send economy-grade quivers through the structure. As with all Prius models, the handling is numb and indifferent. Don't get us wrong, the Prius Plug-in drives just fine for normal commuting duties and the like. But if it seems we're being harsher here than in the regular Prius review, that's because the more expensive Plug-in competes on price with a lot of very capable and luxurious cars. Consider that Toyota's excellent new Avalon sedan is available for about the same cost.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Volt: The Volt's bloated bottom line remains an issue, but it's more rewarding to drive than the Toyota, and its EV mode is the real deal.

Ford C-MAX Energi: On paper, Ford's plug-in people-mover is a superstar, boasting 21 miles of electric range, an 85-mph top electric speed, and genuinely engaging handling. The battery pack is poorly integrated into the trunk floor, however, and we find the C-MAX looks a bit silly.

Nissan Leaf: The Leaf is purely electric, so it's not the answer if you need a car for road trips. But with a range of up to 73 miles, it's the ultimate electric grocery-getter.

AutoTrader Recommends

There's no question the Plug-in Prius can be nicely equipped with lots of high-end options. However, that can push the price into the $40,000 range and we just can't see dropping that kind of money on a Prius. For the best combination of value and fuel sipping, we recommend the base Prius.

 What do you think of the new Prius? Let us know in the comments below.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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