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USA Today Test-Drives Prius/Ford PHEVs; Says 400 Priuses in Future Demo Fleet
Feb 1, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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USA Today's automotive correspondent, James Healey, has been paying increasing attention to PHEVs. This month he's written three stories: one a general story about GM/Toyota and Ford, followed by test-drives of the early prototype Prius and Ford Escape PHEVs.

The vehicles come off very well considering their limitations: 71.3 MPG of gasoline (plus electricity) for Prius, 55 for Ford. And Healey shows he gets the main benefits -- PHEVs are about displacing gasoline with cheaper, cleaner, domestic electricity, when he winds up the Prius story, "But every mile on battery power is a mile without a drop of petroleum or tailpipe emissions. Some is better than none." And with the Ford, he finds, "a buck of electricity vs. three bucks of petroleum for the same distance."

At the end of the first article, he provides the first quantification we've seen for how many Priuses Toyota will deliver in PHEV versions sometime in 2009-2010: 400 is the number. We hope as time goes by that number will get revised up...

Ford, Toyota, GM get charged up for hybrid plug-ins
CAPTION: A Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid with a gas-free limit of some 10 miles could arrive "as soon as 2010."­money/­autos/­2008-01-17-plug-ins_N.htm

By James R. Healey, USA TODAY
Major automakers say they can have plug-in hybrid vehicles in showrooms within five years, offering big increases in fuel economy for what they hope will be modest price premiums.

Based on results from prototypes, plug-ins appear capable of 50 to 100 miles per gallon on short trips when the vehicles operate mainly on their increased battery power. "If we can't decide within five years whether we can do this, something is wrong," says Greg Frenette, chief engineer for plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles at Ford Motor (F).

Plug-in hybrids are conventional gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles toting bigger batteries, which can be charged from a household outlet.

The extra battery capacity allows the vehicles to operate on battery-only power for the first 5 or 10 miles. Then it reverts to normal hybrid mode, blending gasoline and electric power.

The U.S. Energy Department said Thursday that it will award up to $30 million to projects intended to "deliver up to 40 miles of electric range without recharging" and to make plug-ins "cost-competitive by 2014 and ready for commercialization by 2016."

It said 40 miles would cover most commutes and 70% of average driving.

Key will be progress on lithium-ion batteries, which store more energy and are smaller than today's nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toyota (TM) wants "to be sure they're robust enough to withstand the extreme charging-discharging cycles in a plug-in hybrid, and still last the life of the car," says Jaycie Chitwood, senior planner at Toyota's advanced technologies unit in the USA.

Ford will exhibit a plug-in version of its Escape hybrid SUV at the Washington, D.C., auto show next week. Ford will make 20 with lithium batteries for trials by Southern California Edison.

Frenette forecasts 70 to 120 mpg, depending on driving conditions.

GM (GM) said at the Detroit auto show that it plans a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue hybrid "as soon as 2010." GM tests show 10 miles of moderate driving on the lithium batteries only and overall fuel economy of 60 mpg or so.

Toyota showed off a plug-in Prius hybrid prototype at the Detroit show this week and says it could begin regular production within a few years. "It's more when than if," Chitwood says.

The handful in demonstration service now use nickel-metal hydride batteries and will shift to lithium as Toyota begins putting 400 plug-in Priuses into demonstration service worldwide beginning late next year or early 2010.­money/­autos/­reviews/­healey/­2008-01-17-toyota-prius-plug-in-hybrid_N.htm
USA Today January 17, 2008
Prius plug-in displays battery of good points
CAPTION: The socket for the Prius plug-in is behind a small cover on the body that looks like a gas cap's.

DETROIT -- Seventy-one miles per gallon.

That's what the trip computer read after a 4-mile loop through downtown and a short freeway blast in a prototype of the Toyota (TM) Prius plug-in hybrid.

Skip the freeway run, go lighter on the throttle downtown and the reading could have been infinite, because the car would have stayed entirely on battery power, never tapping its gasoline engine for help.

The best of the current, regular hybrids -- the Prius non-plug-in variety -- has mileage ratings in the mid-40s.

How they differ:

  • Regular hybrids blend the output of an electric motor and gasoline engine to save fuel. Their batteries are recharged when you slow or stop the car, a process called regenerative braking that turns the electric motor into a generator. Their gasoline engines supplement recharging if regen is insufficient.
  • Plug-in hybrids have more battery packs and a charger. Plug the car into an electric outlet -- three or four hours is enough for this prototype -- and it goes farther without the gasoline engine.

No automakers offer regular-production plug-ins yet, though several are under development.

Short trips are the forte of plug-ins. The energy stored when plugged in is enough for several miles on batteries alone. Toyota says the extra battery pack in the plug-in Prius, mounted in the spare-tire well, should be good for about 7 miles. Stay in that range -- a commute, urban errand, quick trip to basketball practice -- and you can drive on batteries only, using no gasoline and expelling no pollutants.

Of course, if you take into account emissions from the powerplant generating the electricity to recharge the battery, the picture gets murky. If that power comes from hydro-electric dams or nuclear or natural gas plants, Toyota says emissions are cut. But not for the USA overall, Toyota says, because half our power comes from coal-fired plants.

Averaged across the USA, "There's very little (emissions) benefit" compared with a current Prius hybrid, says Jaycie Chitwood, senior planner at Toyota's advanced technologies unit in the USA.

The test car was one of eight in the USA and among 400 Toyota will field for real-world trials next year.

At the start of the test drive, the car's instruments showed enough charge for 5 miles on battery only. The Prius reverted to normal gasoline-electric hybrid mode just as the 4-mile loop ended, signaling the extra battery was nearly depleted -- and that driving had been a bit vigorous.

The only apparent differences between the prototype plug-in and a regular Prius:

  • An electrical socket hidden behind what looks like a gas-filler flap on the right-rear fender.
  • A dashboard monitor to track electric-only travel: how much farther you can go and how hard you can push the vehicle before dipping into gasoline power.

The prototype behaved about like any other Prius -- which is a good thing. Prius hybrids are popular because they are good cars, regardless of what's powering them. Fuel-saving benefits are a bonus.

They have extraordinary interior room for their size. Their hatchback lets you easily load. Their interiors fit together well and offend neither eye nor hand.

As expected in a Prius, seats were comfortable and the ride pretty composed. Corners can't be taken with the brio of a sports sedan, but control is satisfactory.

The electric power steering feels slightly artificial, but the assist is about right for routine driving.

The plug-in, like other Priuses and most hybrids, shimmies when the gas engine kicks in. Otherwise, the test car was smooth, quiet and punchy. The extra battery pack boots total gas-electric output to 136 horsepower vs. 110 in the normal Prius, says Toyota, enough to push the plug-in's extra 220 pounds.

Electric motors deliver peak torque -- low-speed power -- the instant they start. Most any electric car can embarrass a gasoline muscle car at a green light.

"Just because they're 'green' doesn't mean they can't be fun," says General Motors' Tony Posawatz, head of GM's plug-in-vehicle development.

The quiet, irresistible urge of the prototype was luxurious, as if road issues weren't real. Toe lightly into the throttle and feel no-hassle response from the motor. Slight whine is heard from the motor, but only because the rest of the car is so quiet. Typical of a hybrid.

Full-throttling onto the freeway put the extra battery power to good use, flinging the prototype to proper speed briskly. The plug-in can stay in electric-only mode on level roads up to 62 mph, Toyota says, vs. 20 mph in the regular Prius.

Plug-ins seem wonderful for short trips and would do no worse than regular hybrids on longer trips.

But Chitwood warns they'll cost more; she wouldn't guess how much. Today's Prius hybrid starts at about $22,000. Price partly will be dictated by how far people insist on going on only battery power. Greater range raises the costs of the batteries and charging gear.

But every mile on battery power is a mile without a drop of petroleum or tailpipe emissions.

Some is better than none.

SIDEBAR: Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid

  • What is it? Plug-in version of the popular gasoline-electric hybrid. An additional battery pack with a plug-in apparatus allows battery-only operation for several miles before gasoline engine kicks in. Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact hatchback with midsize interior room.
  • How soon? A few in demonstration fleets now, more coming late next year as Toyota pushes to get 400 into service worldwide to collect data on charging and other issues.

    Don't expect regular-production versions for at least two years, probably longer.
  • How much? Plug-ins will be priced higher than regular hybrids because of their extra batteries and charging hardware, but Toyota hasn't forecast a price premium.

    Regular Prius starts at about $22,000.
  • What's the drivetrain? Same as regular Prius, with another battery mounted in a spare-tire well: 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor, both driving though a continuously variable transmission using planetary gears.

    Total combined power listed as 136 horsepower (vs. 110 in current Prius). Toyota doesn't provide combined total torque figure.
  • What's the rest? Features, furnishings are same as regular Prius, which is listed at
  • How big? Prius is 175 inches long, 67.9 inches wide, 58.7 inches tall on a 106.3-inch wheelbase.

    Weight of plug-in is listed as 2,992 pounds, 220 pounds more than regular version.
  • How thirsty? Toyota says the plug-in will go about 7 miles on battery power only, before switching to regular gasoline-electric hybrid mode.

    Uses no gasoline in battery-only mode.

    Regular Prius hybrid rated 48 miles per gallon in town, 45 on the highway 46 in combined driving.

    Plug-in test car recorded 71.3 mpg in a 4-mile route that included a short, fast freeway section.

    The drive depleted the plug-in battery, so fuel mileage would have begun dropping fast in additional driving as the gasoline engine cycled on during normal hybrid mode.
  • Overall: Very promising technology, but how soon and how much?­money/­autos/­reviews/­healey/­2008-01-24-ford-escape-plugin-hybrid_N.htm
USA Today January 24, 2008
Ford Escape plug-in prototype shows potential

CAPTION: The prototype Escape plug-in has the smoothest hybrid drivetrain of any yet reviewed in Test Drive. Ford says drivers could go about 30 miles on a fully charged battery without using any gas or emitting any exhaust.
CAPTION: An ordinary cord is all it takes to power up.

Automakers are moving fast to determine whether plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can be put onto the market affordably.

PHEVs can up to triple fuel mileage in short trips, and recharging costs less than gas to go the same distance. It appears that plug-ins cut tailpipe emissions more than enough to make up for any pollution caused by the plants that generate the electricity to charge them.


"I'll take two," you say. Hold on, sport. Plug-ins require costly additional battery capacity and plug-in rechargers. Regular gas-electric hybrids can't be plugged in and don't have capacity to run battery-only.

Automakers are uncertain how much costlier plug-in hybrids would be over normal hybrids, which, in turn, cost at least $2,000 more than gasoline vehicles.

Still, it's intriguing enough and possible enough to take plug-ins seriously and to drive 'em if you got 'em.

Test Drive examined a prototype Toyota (TM) Prius plug-in hybrid last Friday. This time we'll look at a prototype version of Ford Motor's (F) Escape SUV plug-in hybrid.

The Escape plug-in hybrid, on display at the auto show in Washington, D.C., this week, is rolling into service at Southern California Edison, where some will go to individuals to measure results in ordinary driving.

Before delivering it to the show, Ford engineers gave USA TODAY wheel time in the front-drive prototype.

Short take: excellent mileage, extraordinarily smooth integration of gasoline and electric powerplants. Escape's aging design hobbles the package overall, but it's likely to be redesigned by the time a plug-in hybrid version would be available.

Ford, Toyota, General Motors (GM) and others developing plug-ins won't yet vouch for the reliability of the lithium-ion batteries probably needed for practical PHEVs. They hope furious development brings long-life, low-cost lithium batteries soon -- 2010 or so.

The idea of PHEVs is to run on battery power as long as possible before hailing the gasoline engine for help, with no gas use or tailpipe emissions for that time.

Here's what you probably want to know first about the Escape PHEV: 55 miles per gallon, according to Ford engineers' on-board computer.

That was in 23 miles of snowy suburban driving that included rolling hills, hard acceleration and slick-street wheel spin just for the fun of it. And here's a nugget: Escape's traction control actually allows some wheel spin, which is good on many surfaces. Too often today's traction systems in nanny vehicles don't.

Ford's Greg Frenette, chief engineer for plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles, says up to 120 mpg in town is reasonable in flatter, moderate driving. He forecasts 70 to 80 mpg on the highway, where the gas engine works more, and 30 miles of light driving up to 40 mph on a charged battery alone.

The prototype Toyota Prius PHEV reviewed last Friday showed 71.3 mpg on its trip computer in a downtown Detroit loop and a freeway spurt. It has twice the battery of a normal Prius, but it uses some to boost power, so it goes about 7 battery-only miles.

Escape PHEV has five times the battery and uses it all for extended range, which is how it hits 30 miles.

In search of real-world results, no special restraint was exercised driving, so results were worse than the automakers' theoretical maximums. Ford, notably, seems to have nearly erased the shudder common in hybrids when the gasoline engine joins the party. "Our engineers worked very hard on that," Frenette says.

The transition among electric-only, electric-and-gas and gas-only modes was undetectable in the test -- up there with the $105,000 Lexus LS 600h L hybrid.

The Escape PHEV's battery is bigger and weighs more than the current Escape hybrid battery. Thus, there's slower acceleration.

Frenette says the goal is a production PHEV with the same capacity and capability as the regular hybrid.

Otherwise, the Escape PHEV was pretty much an Escape hybrid. And the hybrid seems the smoothest and most pleasant of the entire Escape line.

The prototype's brakes didn't have the feel of an anchor tossed overboard that you get from most hybrids' regenerative braking systems, which recharge the batteries as the vehicle slows. Its signature on most hybrids is a sudden scrubbing of speed when you release the throttle and more when you press the brake.

The Escape interior's been redone for 2008, an upgrade only partly successful. Some controls operate more smoothly, and the '08 is quieter. But the rear seats don't slide, as they do in rivals Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The dash tries too hard to be dressy.

Upholstery is made of recycled plastic that looks and feels better than you'd think.

The exterior got cosmetic tweaks it didn't need and you don't want, such as a garish, faux-chrome grille.

Based on drives in the Prius and Escape prototypes, PHEVs should attract plenty of buyers if they actually make it into production -- and are affordable. Cautions Frenette: "These big batteries are expensive."


Electricity for residential use averages 10.4 cents a kilowatt-hour across the USA, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Gasoline averages about $3 a gallon, according to travel organization AAA.

The battery pack in the Escape PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) holds 10 kilowatt-hours. So it's $1.04 to recharge a depleted battery (hypothetically, because the vehicle won't let the battery completely run down). Ford says you could go 30 in-town miles with a full battery and a light foot.

A gasoline car able to eke out 30 mpg in town would cost its driver $3 to go that far.

Thus: a buck of electricity vs. three bucks of petroleum for the same distance.

The price of electricity varies widely, averaging from about 5 cents to about 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on where you live, EIA says. Even at 21 cents, the fuel costs still favor the plug-in: $2.10 for electricity vs. $3 for gasoline.

Once a PHEV depletes its charge and needs its gasoline engine to supply power, the energy cost balance begins to change. If you were to routinely drive the Toyota Prius PHEV prototype well beyond its 7-mile battery range, or the Ford Escape PHEV prototype beyond its 30-mile battery range, your relative savings and the vehicle's fuel economy diminish.

And if electricity prices soar, or gasoline prices tumble, the cost formula changes.


  • What is it? Plug-in version of the Escape compact SUV gasoline-electric hybrid. Has five times as much battery capacity and hardware as the current Escape hybrid to recharge the battery from a standard household outlet.
  • What's the point? Minimize fuel consumption by using battery-only power as long as possible before the gasoline engine kicks in.
  • How soon? It's a prototype. If tests are positive, it could be on the market in five years.
  • How much? It's unclear how much the bigger battery and charging hardware would boost the price. Today's normal Escape hybrid starts at $27,170.
  • What's the drivetrain? Same as a non-plug-in Escape hybrid, but with a 10-kilowatt-hour battery vs. 2-kilowatt-hour battery. Has 2.3-liter gasoline engine rated 133 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 124 pounds-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm, mated to an electric motor rated 94 hp, driving through continuously variable automatic transmission.
  • What's the rest? Features, furnishings are similar to normal Escape hybrid, which can be found at
  • How big? Typical small SUV: 174.7 inches long, 71.1 inches wide (81.3 inches including mirrors), 67.7 inches tall on a 103.1-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 3,900 pounds, about 260 more than non-plug-in Escape hybrid. Ford expects to cut that by 45 pounds.
  • Prototype has slightly less cargo space than the production hybrid because the battery is bigger, but Ford says the production plug-in would have the same cargo and passenger space as a non-plug-in. Turning circle diameter is listed as 36.7 feet, curb-to-curb.

  • How thirsty? Ford claims up to 120 miles per gallon in city driving, 70 to 80 mpg on the highway.
  • Ford says that careful drivers could stay on battery-only power up to 40 mph for the first 30 miles, using no gasoline. After that, the vehicle becomes a conventional gasoline-electric hybrid.

    2008 Escape hybrid is rated 34 mpg in town, 30 mpg on the highway, 32 in combined driving (front-wheel drive) and 29/27/28 (all-wheel drive); 2009 models get a different engine, but Ford hasn't forecast mileage ratings.

    The experimental trip computer was faulty in the FWD prototype test vehicle. Ford says a separate computer in the vehicle showed 55 mpg for the test -- 23 brisk, suburban miles on snow-slick, wheel-spin-inviting streets.

  • Overall: Smoothest hybrid drivetrain yet tested; excellent mileage. Can Ford bring it to market at the right price?
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