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The 2012 Chevrolet Volt extended-range plug-in hybrid has lower fuel costs than the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid if the driver regularly drives 14 to 70 miles between recharges, while the Prius Plug-in is a cheaper ride at longer recharging intervals, according to green-vehicles industry analyst John Gartner. At 70 miles, the two cars are even at $4.75 in fuel expenses, while the Prius Plug-in driver would be at about $1 ahead of Volt-owning neighbors if each vehicle was driven 110 miles a day, Gartner found. For the first 14 miles, both vehicles would be running on power from their grid-charged batteries and their fuel costs would be the same, said Gartner, a senior analyst at Colorado-based clean-technology markets research firm Pike Research.

Gartner’s fuel-cost report, related in a Pike blog post earlier this week, indicates that many potential plug-in electric vehicle buyers may compare the Prius Plug-in to the Volt when the rechargeable Toyota hybrid debuts in 14 U.S. states next spring. Industry watchers expect the two cars to be fierce rivals in the infant plug-in market segment and Toyota seems confident its plug-in hybrid will outsell Chevrolet’s. Toyota Division Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter in September estimated that dealers wills sell about 15,000 plug-in Priuses during its first year. Chevrolet dealers through the first nine months of this year have sold just 3,900 Volts, though the automaker claims sales numbers have been constrained by limited supply.

The Volt might appear to get a marketplace boost from its $7,500 federal tax credit versus a $2,500 credit for the Prius Plug-in because of its markedly smaller battery pack. Battery capacity is the metric the federal government uses to determine the size of a rechargeable vehicle’s tax credit. But the Volt’s higher sticker price – it starts at $39,995 versus $32,760 for the Prius Plug-in – ends up making it about $2,000 more expensive than the Toyota. Additionally, Prius plug-in drivers will get to drive solo in some states' high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, while Volt drivers will have to wait until mid-2012, when the 2013 model is released with an engine-generator retuned to reduce emissions enough to qualify for single-occupancy carpool lanes. While those comparisons will help consumers make their choice, Gartner believes that the most important factor will be fuel economy and fuel savings.

Efficiency Or Environmental?
“Winning the hearts and wallets of consumers could come down to one number,” said Gartner. data shows that fuel efficiency and fuel prices are closely tied in the conventional-car market, with sales of more-efficient vehicles rising during times of increasing fuel costs. Conventional (non plug-in) hybrid sales, however, have not always followed that trend, in large part because their higher prices make them more vulnerable to a weak economy. In his study, Gartner factored in gas prices at $3.50 a gallon and electricity at 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Higher gasoline prices would improve the Prius’ cost efficiency over the Volt at longer distances because the Prius Plug-in is expected to be rated at 50 miles per gallon when its gasoline engine is running, versus the Volt’s 37-mpg EPA rating for gas-only travel.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson says a September report by Carnegie Mellon University provides one reason environmentally minded drivers may choose the plug-in variant of the Prius over the Volt regardless of potentially higher fueling costs: the report says electric-drive cars with larger battery packs may cause more environmental damage than cars with smaller packs because the bigger battery packs are heavier, produce more emissions when they are manufactured and require more charging infrastructure. The Volt has a 16-kilowatt-hour pack, the Prius plug-in a 4.4 kilowatt-hour pack.

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