Friday, November 18, 2011

Toyota Plug-In Prius

The plug-in Prius will hit the market next year.  Is this the wave of the future?

As part of the bailout package, GM agreed to develop and sell the Chevrolet Volt, a parallel hybrid car that runs on both electricity and gasoline.  GM has used this car as a publicity stunt, which is odd, as they accused Toyota of the same thing when it introduced the original Prius over a decade ago.

GM calls the Volt an electric car, when it is trying to sell it against the Nissan Leaf.  But in advertisements, they tout how it also runs on gas, and thus will not leave you stranded.   Pretty funny.

But what is disturbing about the Volt is the way GM has built it and sold it.  They have made only a few thousand so far, and are offering it in "limited markets" where one has to apply for permission to buy it.  Recently, they have been rolling them out to other dealerships, but apparently only as display models, to generate showroom traffic and create a halo effect, much as Corvettes are used to get in performance buyers, who can then be transitioned into a more affordable Camaro or Cruz, depending on budget.

Toyota, on the other hand, has been serious about selling hybrids.  They have been in the game for a decade now, and despite all the naysayers, their Prius has been a success.

Many folks claimed the battery pack would die after a few years, rendering the car useless, as the cost of replacement would exceed resale value.  And yet, many of the original cars are still rolling strong, after 200,000 miles, on the original battery packs.  And some road-testers have reported that after a decade, the cars still run and drive nearly like new.  And still others  report that hybrids are also safer than conventional cars, in a crash situation.

The naysayers, of course, were engaging in FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, to get people to stick with more conventional cars.  And even today, people question how long the Volt battery pack will last, even though hybrids have been on the market a decade.  It is a good way to steer a Volt buyer to the less expensive and more profitable Cruz.

So the question remains, should you buy a hybrid?  I examined this question before, and my conclusion was that, given the costs involved, it is a wash.  While you may get better gas mileage with a Hybrid, the sticker price is far higher, and the net savings may take years to realize - and even then, be fairly trivial.

The primary motivation for buying Hybrids today, I think, is what I call reverse-status.  Most of the people I know who own Hybrid cars are aging hippies, left-wingers, Democrats, and people who otherwise want to project a politically correct, planet-hugging image.  They sort their recyclables.

There is nothing wrong with that, per se, other than they should realize that their decision to buy a Hybrid car is not really saving the planet, but rather making a political statement.  Taking the bus, or better yet, walking, is a far better way to "save the planet".  Just owning a car that gets marginally better gas mileage than others, really isn't making a dent.

And as I noted in my earlier posting, getting 40+ mpg is not hard to do these days, with a small car.  And so many Prius owners drive so poorly that they never get the vaunted 50 mpg.  They even brag about this to me, saying, "Well, it will get 50 mpg, but the way I drive, I barely get 40."

Some way to save the planet.

And then there are those who really don't get it, like Al Gore's son, who was busted for drug possession after being caught speeding in his Prius, doing 100 mph.  I guess he felt that the faster he went, the faster he would clean up the planet.  I guess this is understandable, considering his Dad has a 20-room mansion that burns through $2400 a month in electricity and natural gas.  An inconvenient truth if there ever was one.

So, buying any car to make a political statement - or indeed, any statement - is idiotic and foolish.  You have to look at this from a rational standpoint as a cost/benefit decision and figure out if the car in question will meet your needs and be economical to own.

The new Plug-In Prius is interesting to me because of my background in Automotive and Electrical Engineering.  It is an engineering tour de force, and that sort of thing is cool.  But whether it is practical depends on how much they are selling it for, of course.

It would seem that after 10 years on the market, that Toyota has figured out the Hybrid, and moreover, figured it out early on.  So I think reliability issues, at least after the first year of introduction of the plug-in model, should not be a concern.  Despite all the hoopla over unintended acceleration and recalls, Toyota still makes a far better product than, say, Nissan or GM.  A car such as this should easily last a decade or more - possibly two decades, provided you don't run it into a tree.

And if you are planning on keeping a hybrid for at least six years, the extra cost can pay back, provided gas prices remain high.  However, I suspect that gas prices will dip to below $3 a gallon soon, at least in the short-term.  Already we are hearing noises that gas-guzzler sales are on the rise.  But long-term, I think we will see $5-a-gallon gas, before the decade is out.

The plug-in hybrid, however, has the potential to offer additional savings, if most of your travels involve short trips - which is the case for most people.   The plug-in Prius has an all-electric range of only about 15 miles.  This doesn't sound like much, but it is about how far most people commute to work.  And while it may take a few hours to recharge at 110V, most people sit at work for several hours and sleep overnight for several more.  Recharging time, to me, is not an issue.

If all you use your car for is to drive 10 miles to and from work and the grocery store, you could conceivably never have to put gas in it, except when you decide to drive to Disney World.  If we use 40 mpg as a target number, and assume the driver drives the typical American 15,000 miles a year, and assume that 10,000 miles of this is in all-electric mode, we can crank some numbers.

If the car ran in all hybrid mode, it would use 375 gallons of gas a year, which at $4 a gallon (assuming that today's low prices don't last) would be about $1500 of gas a year.  If 2/3 of those miles driven were in electric mode only, you would have a whopping savings of $1000 in gas a year (!!!).

Granted, your electric bill would go up, but at 10 cents a Kilowatt-Hour, the costs of electricity are pretty negligible.  The battery charges in about two hours at 110V.  Assuming it draws 20 Amps (which is a generous assumption), that works out to about 2 kW-h per night, or about $146 a year in electricity.  Even assuming you use $200 in electricity a year you still save $800 a year in fuel costs.  This is pretty significant.

But of course, this all depends on your driving habits.  People driving long distances will not see much savings or have much opportunity to plug in to recharge.  Folks who drive low miles per year (like me) might not see much savings, either.  Like any other piece of machinery, it is only efficient and cost-effective when applied to the correct application.

So, is it worth it?  At $32,000 retail price, it is not staggeringly higher in price than say, a fully loaded Camry, or for that matter, Camry Hybrid.   However, I suspect you could get a sale price on other cars, while the Prius Plug-in does not appear to have any discounts.  And it seems that Toyota is not sure of the market for this car, and like GM and Nissan, have decided to offer the cars on a "build on request" basis - in limited markets.   I am not sure that I would want to buy any product offered in this manner.

And in any event, it is never a good idea to buy any car model during its first model year, even if the car in question is based on a model with a good reliability record.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting piece of technology and one has to commend Toyota for getting into the market (and establishing the Hybrid market in the first place).

Maybe in five years, I can pick up a used one.....