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USA: Chevrolet Volt Vs. Toyota Prius: Compare Cars

The Toyota Prius and the Chevrolet Volt are two of the greenest cars on the market, but which one meets your particular mix of needs the best? The answer turns out to be: Well, that depends.

Entirely redesigned for the 2010 model year, the third-generation Toyota Prius liftback is the quintessential hybrid vehicle. Its 50-mpg combined EPA rating is tied for the highest gas mileage of any car sold in the U.S. that doesn’t have a plug. (It’s tied with another Prius model, the Prius C subcompact hybrid.) While there’s also a new Prius Plug-In Hybrid model just coming onto the market, by the way, this comparison looks only at the conventional hybrid Prius liftback.

The Chevy Volt, launched in December 2010 as a 2011 model, was the first modern range-extended electric car to go on sale anywhere. While it has a lithium-ion battery pack that provides a range of 35 miles, according to the EPA, once that pack is depleted, the Volt switches on its gasoline engine and keeps going. Crucially, that engine doesn’t power the wheels (with one small exception): It simply turns a generator that produces more electricity to power the electric motor that turns the front wheels.

By now, the shape of the Prius is distinctive and well-known. You can spot one from 100 feet away. The Volt has a similar overall shape–a smooth front, flat sides, and a roofline that stays high and then drops off abruptly. Both cars even have two-piece rear windows, with a long, almost horizontal panel in the upper part of the tailgate, plus a smaller vertical pane in the lower section. Each car has supporters and detractors concerning its design, but the Prius can seat five, while the Volt won’t hold more than four people–and has slightly less load space to boot.

The two cars are very different to drive, though. The Prius is still primarily a gasoline car, and while it can accelerate from rest to about 30 mph solely on electricity, that takes a light foot on the accelerator and a gradual gathering of speed. Otherwise, the engine will switch on, as it will at first when the car is cold. The Volt runs electrically all the time, so the power is smooth and continuous, regardless of whether the engine is running or not.

As for gas mileage, we confirmed that the Prius returns about 50 mpg in real-world usage. That number falls slightly in cold weather, just as the Volt’s battery range falls during winter. The EPA rates the Volt at 37 mpg when its range extender is running, but the actual mileage that owners get depends entirely on how often they plug in to recharge the battery pack (which takes up to 9 hours on regular 110-Volt household current, or about 4 hours using a specially installed 240-Volt Level 2 charging station).

A Volt owner who does only 30 miles a day and recharges every night may switch on his engine for weeks at a time. (Volts actually ask permission of their drivers to switch on the engine for a few minutes every few months, to circulate the fluids and prevent damage to due lack to use.) Owners may easily record “gas mileage” of 100 to 400 miles per gallon under those circumstances. But Volt owners who drive 50 or more miles every day will be powered by a mix of grid electricity and gasoline, so their mileage will be 37 mpg or somewhat higher.

So who saves more gasoline? As we said, it depends. If you do 100 miles a day, the Prius wins. If you do 30 miles a day and plug in religiously, the Volt wins.

Other considerations: The Prius interior is Space Age-y and full of hard plastics, with simple numeric and diagram readings in the upper Multi-Information Display at the base of the windshield. The “flying buttress” high-level console that sweeps down from the dash is impressionistic but somewhat impractical. The seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of room inside, however. The Volt has a more stylish interior but has many identical looking touch-sensitive switches on the center stack, which some drivers say require more concentration to operate properly. And each occupant sits in a defined bucket seat, even in the rear, where the battery pack precludes a third seating position.
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