Hands-on with Toyota's Prius plug-in hybrid (video)

Yesterday we attended Toyota's Green Drive Expo where we were given the opportunity to take the production version of the Prius plug-in hybrid (PHV) -- and its smorgasbord of technology -- for a spin. We spent a couple hours driving interfacing with the computers aboard the Advanced model, which besides being outlet-friendly, includes some unique features within the Prius lineup. Explore our gallery below, and hit the break for our impressions and hands-on videos with the latest incarnation of Toyota's iconic vehicle.

The plug-in hybrid is a basically a 2012 Prius with a larger capacity 4.4kWh lithium-ion battery instead of the standard NiMH pack, an integral battery charger and an industry-standard charging port. As such, this Prius can be charged and driven like a true electric car for up to 15 miles at speeds up to 62mph before the internal combustion engine kicks in. Spirited driving will also cause the engine to assist the electric motor, but in most cases EV mode is a petrol-free experience. It takes about three hours to fully charge the battery using a standard 120V household outlet, and 1.5 hours from a 240V supply. A charger cable is conveniently located within a cubbyhole in the trunk area.

In addition to the unique charging port (with illumination), the Prius plug-in features a backup camera, LED daytime running lights and on the Advanced trim we drove, LED headlights (with washers) as well as a millimeter wave radar sensor for the dynamic cruise control and pre-collision systems. Once inside, you're treated to the usual full-on Star Trek experience -- the Prius plug-in improves upon its hybrid sibling with a higher resolution multi-information panel (which also shows EV specific data) paired with Toyota's Touch Tracer Display. The Advanced model adds a hard drive to the JBL-branded navigation system, OnStar-like functionailty and a heads-up display that shows speed and turn-by-turn directions.

The star of the show is definitely Toyota's Entune infotainment system, which will eventually include additional apps unique to the Advanced trim (Charge Management, Remote Air Conditioning System, Charging Station Map, Vehicle Finder and Eco Dashboard). Sadly, these enhancements are still being finalized and weren't available on the car we test-drove. The voice-controlled navigation takes a bit of time to master, but the touchscreen interface is intuitive and easy to use.

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Once behind the wheel, the good news is that it drives like a Prius and the bad news is that it drives like a Prius. The plug-in version feels pretty much like the hybrid model -- it's not an engaging experience for the driver, but it provides a reliable, safe, and comfortable way to travel from point A to point B. Other than the torquey electric motor, there's just too little feedback from the vehicle to generate any kind of driving excitement. The suspension is reasonably well sorted, but the regenerative brakes still feel strange, and the steering is too slow/numb. It's a lot like driving a fancy, high-tech toaster -- a competent appliance that gets the job done without much fanfare, and without burning your Pop-Tarts.

No matter -- there's plenty of gadgetry around to keep everyone entertained. Toyota's 2012 Prius plug-in hybrid will be available in March 2012 with a starting price of $32,000 (vs. $23,520 for the base 2011 Prius hybrid).