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I often strike up a conversation with whoever is beside me on a flight or while we’re waiting for one. Most people love a bit of company. You’d be surprised how many are uneasy with flying and value a bit of distraction. Sometimes we end up having a great chat altogether.

Invariably conversations drift to what I do (after I’ve discovered what they do first). As soon as I mention cars, the questions flow.

Not surprisingly, for the past few weeks the chats have been dominated by electric cars. That’s been the case since Volvo’s announcement that they were going to ‘go’ electric. Straight up, I blame Volvo for creating unwarranted confusion. The fact is they are not going all electric. Some of their new cars will have an electric element instead of, or along with, diesel and petrol engines. But there will be diesel and petrol cars for a long, long time.

The problem has to do with what you term ‘electric’. Nowadays it covers everything that has an element of battery/electric power contributing to its movement. Simply put, there are four ‘electric’ categories:

* Pure electric (battery bank + electric motor);

* Hybrid (petrol engine + electric motor(s) + battery bank).

* Plug-in hybrid (petrol engine, electric motor(s), larger battery bank you charge from socket/point for 35km/50km electric range);

* ‘Mild hybrid’ (boosts engine, stop/start, small additional battery for on-car functions).

Yes, they are all ‘electric’ in some shape or form. But they don’t spell the end of diesel and/or petrol which are very much part of motoring’s future mosaic too.

They will increasingly be joined, however, by the likes of this week’s review car, the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid (PHEV).

I’ve been excited by the concept of hybrids and plug-ins for a long time. Plug-ins are phenomenal concepts but they, like everything else in life, come with compromises. They often pose a question – but more on that anon.

The ‘ordinary’ non-plug-in Prius hybrid remains an original wonder. It has a petrol engine accompanied by power from an electric motor/battery pack. Input from each is controlled by computer. We take all this for granted because it has been around for so long but it still fascinates me.

The Plug-In version goes a step further. It lets you charge a larger battery pack so you can travel 35km/50km without the engine working. Saves a lot on fuel. Sure, you have to get out the cables and plug in but it is cost-effective. If you have a moderate commute, you might never need the engine in the course of the week. They are claiming an un-worldly one-litre/100km. That’s 283mpg. Not a hope of that in the real world, of course, but with emissions claimed to be 22g/km (roughly one-fifth of the best diesel/petrol engines can manage), road tax is low.

On my drives I got just under 4l/100km (71mpg). If I was more assiduous in charging it, I’d have topped 85mpg no problem. Country routes took up a large portion of my journeys; as soon as I hit slower, town traffic the consumption improved because I travelled more on battery power.

This Prius is a much smarter looking car now. I like the look of the ‘new’ front. But one of the compromises around having a larger (lithium-ion) battery pack (towards the rear) is that it robs boot space (down from 501 litres in the ‘ordinary’ Prius to 360 litres in this). Furthermore, the back seats are now limited to two (albeit with plenty of room). It is also 130kg heavier.

However, it is quicker to charge (2 hours to 3hr/10mins, depending on source) while its dual-motor drive lets the hybrid system’s generator act as a second electric motor. Clever.

The 4cyl, 1.8-litre petrol engine has been heavily revised and, with electric-motor input, the hybrid system develops 122bhp.

The continuously variable transmission (CVT) didn’t generate much time-lag ‘boom’ at all when I accelerated hard: a big improvement.

I don’t think people will necessarily buy this car for its handling etc so I won’t waste your time: it was a neutral, pleasant enough drive.

I had recourse to Toyota Ireland expertise with the sat nav (which I found to be excellent; same for the interactive touchscreen) and would advise you to take lots of time getting to know this car’s workings before you drive away. This hi-tech, flexible and accomplished package is a bit of a masterclass.

I enjoyed my drives even if I was horribly guilty of skimping on the charging. Even so, I have to point out it costs nearly €6,000 more than the starting price for the ‘ordinary’ Prius (17ins wheels, 76g/km, 3.3l/100km).

So you pay more for reduced boot/rear-seat room but get significant fuel economy if you opt for the Plug-In. It is the sort of choice we’re all facing in the ‘electric’ future.


Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid Luxury; 1.8-litre petrol/electric motor/battery pack (122bhp); 22g/km, €170 tax, 1l/100km

Equipment includes: Toyota Safety Sense (adaptive cruise control, pre-collision system, pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, auto high beam), 8ins multimedia system, 4.2ins TFT multi-information display, sat nav, 15ins alloys, dual zone climate control, rear air con, rear cross traffic alert, rear-view camera, adaptive LED headlamps, front fogs.

‘Solar’ adds solar roof. ‘Luxury’: leather seats, JBL audio/10 speakers, park assist.

Price from €37,125 (includes VRT €2,500 rebate, €5,000 SEAI grant).


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