The 2013 Prius Liftback and Prius Plug-In Hybrid look all but identical, with only a few trim details and badges, plus a charge-port door on the right-rear fender, to give away the differences under the skin in the plug-in Prius.
The iconic five-door hatchback was last redesigned for 2010, when it achieved a memorable EPA combined fuel economy rating of 50 mpg. Still the benchmark for gasoline powered cars sold in the U.S., only one other car has equaled that number--and it's the smaller Prius C subcompact.
The five-door Prius Liftback is the core of the Prius lineup, and by far its best-selling member. Its high tail, vertical rear, split rear window, and overall profile make it an iconic and a shape that's been instantly recognizable since 2004. It's all in service of lowering the drag coefficient, to minimize the energy used to push it through the air at speed.
The heart of the 2013 Toyota Prius is its Hybrid Synergy Drive system, consisting of two motor-generators that can power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph), add torque to supplement the power of its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, and recharge the battery pack during engine overrun or braking.
Together, the engine and drive motor produce 134 horsepower--giving it slightly better acceleration than earlier models. The quoted 0-to-60-mph acceleration time is just under 10 seconds, though flooring the 2013 Prius produces plenty of howling from up front. The blending of regenerative braking with the all-disc friction brakes is excellent, and Toyota's had longer experience than any other maker in refining it. Using the same running gear, with a few additions, is Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid--the first Prius that can be plugged into the electric grid to recharge its battery pack. While it looks like a regular Prius, its battery pack holds three times as much energy, and that gives it 6 to 11 miles of all-electric range when fully charged.
But that electric range may not be continuous--unlike the the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car--because the plug-in Prius has to switch on its engine whenever it needs more power than the small electric motor can deliver. One example: full acceleration into fast-moving traffic from an uphill freeway on-ramp. The EPA says the Prius Plug-In Hybrid gets the same 50 mpg as the regular Prius hybrid once its battery is depleted. Like all plug-in hybrids, an owner's real-world mileage depends entirely on how much the car can be used for short trips in all-electric mode, with frequent recharges of the small pack.
Driving any Prius for the first time can be startling to novices. The continuously variable nature of the hybrid system means the engine speed (and hence noise) doesn't rise and fall with road speed--which can take some getting used to. And the handling is hardly going to elate sports-car fans. Like virtually all of Toyota's electric power steering systems, the Prius feels numb and lifeless through the wheel--though it responds fine and the car corners capably enough.
While many think of it as a compact, the 2013 Toyota Prius Liftback has the interior volume of a mid-size car and offers plenty of space for four adults, or five if rear-seat passengers will stagger their shoulders. Hollowed-out front seatbacks help increase rear-seat legroom, though the padding on the front seats is skimpy and taller drivers will find the hard-plastic center console cutting into their knee room.