Green

Toyota Prius Plug-In: Can it measure up to Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan’s offerings?

Last week, I wrote about how Ford and GM have staged comebacks that hinged in part on the carmakers’ embracing of new electronics, launching greener cars with smartphone apps and wireless and voice-command capabilities.

Toyota will soon be joining the crowd by offering all of the above. Toyota, maker of the best-known hybrid to date, announced a new family of its Priuses today, including a plug-in version slated for release in 2012. It is also launching Entune, an in-car system with a matching smartphone app that allows drivers to connect to popular web applications like Pandora and OpenTable.

Toyota chose to use social media to go public with the announcement, livestreaming on its website and having an executive answer questions via Twitter.

Somewhat hip marketing tricks aside, the Toyota Prius Plug-In hybrid still doesn’t promise the same electric battery range as the just-launched Chevrolet Volt. The company website states battery range will cover 13 miles of emissions-free driving. Thirteen miles? Really?

What’s unclear is whether its total miles per gallon rating will best the Volt, which switches over to gas after depleting the battery. The Prius Plug-In will operate like a regular third-generation Prius hybrid after running down the battery, and USA Today reported it got 51 miles per gallon in a test drive (but speculates the car could yield up to 70 miles per gallon). The Volt’s EPA rating gave it a 93 MPGe (MPG equivalent) on the first 35 miles on battery only, then a 37 MPG rating on gas only. (And yes, the EPA giving out MPG ratings to cars when they don’t actually use gas is kinda stupid.)

Electric cars and partially electric cars appear to still be tough to produce and sell en masse, as the Prius Plug-In is slated for limited release, like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric. The car will initially be offered in the 14 states where 60 percent of existing Priuses have been sold: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Virginia and New Hampshire. Toyota says the plug-in Prius will become available to the rest of the U.S. a year after initial rollout.

I wonder if the Prius Plug-In will snatch would-be Volt customers thanks to the longevity of the Prius brand — or if its low battery mileage will be a turnoff to ardent electric car fans. It may all just come down to price. The Volt sells at $40,000 before federal and state incentives, while the cheapest Prius starts at about $23,000.