Head To Head: Three Plug-Ins

When Toyota provided us one of its Prius Plug-In demonstration vehicles — from a test fleet of roughly 160 copies across the country — we saw an opportunity to drive the first three mass-market plug-ins head to head. The contenders are Cars.com's long-term Nissan Leaf (a simple battery-electric car) and Chevrolet Volt (an electric with a gas-powered range extender) and the Prius Plug-In, which is a regular Prius that can be plugged in and topped off before you drive, thanks to a higher-capacity lithium-ion battery pack.

This type of Prius, which Toyota calls a Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle or PHV, is a work in progress that's being refined during this demonstration period before it goes on sale in 2012. So our findings must be taken with that in mind. Overall, we found this test to be an excellent reflection of the three main philosophies with which automakers will approach plug-in vehicles.

Here, we report on the hands-on experience, ranking the cars where differences were unmistakable. We'll address the mileage and cost results in a separate post.


With its quick launch off the line, consistency and predictability, the Leaf had this contest in the bag. The Volt came in second. It's not quite as quick, but we appreciated the Volt’s consistent feel: Even once the battery is depleted, the acceleration's character remains the same. Residual battery power propels the car, and then the gas engine drives the generator to back-fill it. The Prius PHV came in a distant third. We were pleasantly surprised that it could accelerate respectably on electric power because it has the same drivetrain hardware as the regular Prius, which goes EV-only solely at parking-lot speeds. But if you want full acceleration, the engine does turn on even before the initial charge is expended. The Prius is known for surging and nonlinearity, and it's even worse in this version. This is about software, so there's plenty of opportunity for Toyota to improve it.

Ride & Handling
The Volt rides the smoothest. If you had to drive cross-country in one of these cars — as our boss did after picking up the Volt in California — this would be the one to pick. The all-electric Leaf obviously couldn't cross the country very quickly, but it's rather comfortable, too. I was glad to drive it over the most rutted segment of our test route, and even gladder afterward when I saw the faces of senior editor David Thomas and photographer Ian Merritt, who had been in the Prius PHV. We now know how paint feels in the shaker at Home Depot. Seriously. The word "disaster" was uttered. The regular Prius is no paragon of ride comfort, but the PEV's suspension — revised for the added battery weight — clearly needs work.

Added weight in the rear seems to balance the Prius PHV's weight distribution, but it just doesn't beg to be tossed around on twisty roads, partly because of its lazy, numb steering. The Volt handles admirably, but you feel its heft, and it's really more comfortable trundling along, providing comfort. A floor-mounted battery pack gives the Leaf a low center of gravity. That, along with well-tuned steering and sprightly acceleration, makes the Leaf feel sporty and fun.

All three cars have regenerative braking, which is a recipe for mushy-pedal pie. None of the plug-ins can compete with the best conventional brakes, but the Leaf has the most natural-feeling pedal and braking action. It's reasonably linear on application and release. The Volt is less linear, especially on release. The Prius PHV was our least favorite. Sorry to sound like a broken record (or a scratched CD or corrupted MP3 file), but braking in the regular Prius is equally balky and inconsistent. It got worse when the third generation replaced the second.

The Leaf is admirably quiet, especially when you consider how inconspicuous its drivetrain is, producing only a slight whistle that sounds kind of cool. (The generated pedestrian-warning sound is rarely heard inside the cabin.) Its major flaw, though, is how much noise penetrates the cabin. The sound of nearby trucks and passing cars is intrusive, likely due to thin, weight-saving windows. Wind noise picks up above 40 or 45 mph. Overall, the Volt is the quietest at highway speeds and has the most calming noise level overall when under battery power, though once the engine starts, it's occasionally annoying. The sound stayed more in the background when I tested a Volt in fall 2010; now it tends to drone, often out of sync with the acceleration — a characteristic of continuously variable automatic transmissions and many hybrids to which we've never acclimated. The Prius PHV does the same — more often and noisier — once the initial charge is depleted after a maximum of 13 miles. Once again, the regular Prius does the same thing; it's as bad here, and possibly worse.


All three cars have an aerodynamic design, which tends to put the A-pillars far ahead, obstructing the forward view. Because its roof is relatively low and extends forward, the Volt worsens the matter, limiting the view of traffic signals and signs. The Prius is more open, though the split rear window — also becoming common with aerodynamic shapes — is no one's preference. It plagues the Volt as well. This is one reason we liked the Leaf best: It has a conventional liftgate and a reasonably wide one-piece rear window. Its high roofline also makes for good views all around.

Roominess & Comfort
All three cars have decent front-seat legroom, though the Volt gets extra credit for its long seat travel. It loses out in terms of headroom, though, both perceived and measured. The low roof and centrally located battery pack promote claustrophobia in some, even though the room is decent. Of the three, the Prius got the most complaints about driver’s seat comfort. As for backseats, we're split on the Volt and Leaf: Two editors think the Chevy's legroom is too tight, while two of us prefer the Volt — with the front seats in a workable position — over the Leaf, whose battery pack raises the floor and points our knees toward the heavens. Finally, the Prius PHV has its day: Its backseat is the largest, with the lowest floor and three seats (the Volt has two).


Interior Quality
We should give the Prius some latitude here because the demo car is based on a regular Prius, and it lacked a touch-screen. The 2012 is almost certain to add more bling and things like smartphone connectivity, which the Volt and Leaf have. This model's various displays were lackluster compared with the other two cars. The Leaf's main instrument panel is simple but at least more colorful, and its center touch-screen is nicely done. The Volt adds a busy but colorful high-resolution display as its instrument panel, in addition to the touch-screen. The Volt's touch-sensitive center control stack is an aesthetic and functional blight, but we still think it has the best interior quality overall. Our Volt is loaded with leather and the least chintzy-looking colored door-trim panels, but even the base models exceed the Leaf and Prius, in our opinion. The Leaf is respectable, but its materials quality diminishes as the eye moves downward.

The Prius PHV is arguably still in development, which might mitigate its troubles above. The Prius' true standing might be clearer when we address fuel use and cost of operation for these cars in our next post.


John C. Briggs

Excellent comparison. I hate that you are beating up the Prius, but you got to call them as you see them.


Hmmm not a mention of pricing. All of that GM advertising on Cars.com really does work.

we've got another post coming all about the cost...as mentioned above.

Amuro Ray

How 'bou Trunk space comparison and storage convenience (eg. glove box space, center console, cup holders, etc.)?


We had to cut it off somewhere, and the storage issues seemed to be the place to do it. The difference isn't too dramatic, but it's difficult to give a definitive cargo comparison because there aren't full specs. The volume behind the backseats is similar, though the Volt's seems the leanest. The Prius PEV's cargo floor is higher than the regular Prius', so it doesn't have as clear an advantage as the regular hybrid might. (We also don't know how this might change in the real product.) It's the geometry that differs most. The Leaf has a pretty deep well behind the seats, but the backseat is close to the rear and relatively high when folded. Check out the reviews to get a better idea.


M5 is right about the price issue. What's next comparing a VW Golf to a Ferrari?


Joe where do you get the idea that the current prius can go ev-only at just "parking lot" speeds which sounds like 5 to 10 mph? In reality it will accelerate from 0 to 30 mph on electric power alone. At highway speeds the gasoline engine will shut off if the car is on level ground and the battery is fully charged. It's clear you didn't like the Prius plug-in, but don't unfairly criticize the current model.


My neighbor bought a Volt and it's a very nice car. His wife now drives their Prius. Having driven in both I disagree that the Volt has a better ride. The Volt allows more road feel in through the floor and it's noticeable. I know your comparing the Prius EV but I have a really hard time believing the ride is that much different. If money were no object I'd pick the Volt but in my experience the Prius has a slightly better ride.


i agree with christopher. i'm not sure how you are complaining about the current prius's ride quality. mine is quite smooth. if you want to complain that it's not sporty or the steering is vague, then i understand.

as for prius ev mode, you're absolutely right. i can barely drive around my neighborhood to get to the main road without it kicking back into regular mode due to accelleration being faster than it likes....it's almost laughable because i'm usually driving like an 80 year old lady trying to get it to stay in ev mode...

Matt C

My sympathy to the editors. If you had given an unfavorable review of the Volt then all the GM nuts would come out and talk about how you a front for Toyota Dealers. You guys can't win for loosing.

As for the Prius' ride, if you're a current owner and don't drive anything else it might seem quite fine.

However, we test hundreds of cars a year and on this day, were hopping between these three back to back.

It was glaringly obvious which one had the worst ride. When I got out after my stretch behind the wheel my back hurt more after 45 minutes than it did driving six minivans back to back for 8 hours!

Or the Mini Cooper Countryman I've been commuting in this week for 80 minutes at a time. (it has a rougher ride than the Prius but better seats).

On the price issue...we don't know what the Prius plug-in will cost but the Volt and Leaf are less than $10,000 difference in price and many buyers are considering one or the other, meaning they could afford the more expensive one if they wanted. They're shopping for different reasons than price.

And hopefully you don't do your own taxes because $10,000 is not the $170,000 difference in a Golf and California ;)

Amuro Ray

"BUT the Volt and Leaf are less than $10,000 difference in price"

DT, I don't know if u r trying to minimize the effect of the price difference, or it's my misunderstanding.

A difference of, say, $8000 can mean a total difference of close to $10000 when you figure in taxes in (in California, up to 9.75%), licensing fees (extremely expensive in CA now), insurance cost, etc. in some states. Now, these are all upfront cost, and not future maintenance cost, when you drive the vehicle off the dealer's lot.

"my back hurt more after 45 minutes"
Maybe it's time for Classified Ventures, LLC to upgrade its employee's medical plan to include once or even twice a month's massage! Unless, of 'coz, there is Mr. Mendalbaum there to help u meatbags out with physical activities. :)


I do my own taxes and thousands others for my customers and their companies. It is you that I hope does not do your own taxes as clearly you assume the price difference between the two vehicles is $10,000. Among my customers three have purchased the new Chevrolet Volt and only one qualified for the $7,500 tax credit. A $23,000 dollar vehicle vs $41,000 does not equate to $10,000. Then again I'm not sure whatever diploma mill you graduated from mandates a math course so that would explain your math IQ. Cheers


I drove the PEV in Boston used by Zipcar. While I'm not a huge fan of the Prius hybrid and its uncomfortable driving seat, I have preferred the acceleration and breaking over the Honda Insight, which was inconsistent and not trustworthy. Now, on to the new PEV: horrible. I had heard about the feeling of the breaks releasing when coming to a stop over rough roads (most of Boston!) but never experienced it before driving the PEV. It's not the typical feeling of ABS breaking that flutters the break petal. Even though your foot is hard on the break, the car feels like it lurches forward with no change in the petal. In addition, the default eco mode barely accelerated after each stoplight with the accelerator to the floor. Even in sport (or whatever they call it), I could not parallel park on hard packed snow, bad tires maybe?? (I've previously owned a Honda Accord, manual, and now have a Honda CR-V.)

I do hope they tweak the electronics in this car, because I am fully behind the idea of adding small battery packs into the hybrid (or non!) market. While my CR-V is perfect for where I live in upstate NY, the quick 3 mile trips around town get horrible gas milage. A 13 mile battery pack would be a perfect idea.


I'm really curious to see how these cars do for the long haul. I trust Toyota and Nissan's quality but the Leaf is a whole new beast for Nissan. I think the Volt is much more appealing in its specs that the other two because i do a lot of driving but after being stranded on the road several times with "American" cars I'm too skeptical to really consider making the switch. Since I've been driving around for a week and have only used a little over a quarter of a tank of gas in my Altima (actually made in American), I'm not in any hurry to jump on the electric bandwagon.


From the Nissan web site: *as low as $25,280 net value, after tax savings MSRP $32,780....
Sounds like 41k and 32k are less than 10k different to me.......

Amuro Ray

"Sounds like 41k and 32k are less than 10k different to me......."

You do know that most states do charge sales tax, right? License cost and insurance cost are also sales price dependent too.


What about the Honda Insight?

Cool I really admire toyota vehicle ever since! especially the toyota Innova. when will be the final launching of this new model?great post.

American Tire Depot

So cute! I already like you on FB and also get your posts on Google Reader. :)

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