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Toyota Prius: Trailblazing hybrid plugged into the future

There have been many false dawns, but electric-powered cars seem to finally be on the verge of fulfilling their potential.

You might not think it, staring at unused charging docks in car parks around Northern Ireland, but it's true.

Why? A range of reasons, but improving battery technology, impending legislation linked to noxious diesel emissions and a commitment to all-electric by giants like Tesla, or part-electric like most major manufacturers, are all now starting to converge.

Just last week London slapped a £10 daily fee on older dirty vehicles, on top of the existing £11.50 congestion charge. More penalties are predicted.

There is, however, another factor: the increasing sophistication of petrol-electric hybrids.

It may be some time yet before purely electric cars are routine, but hybrids are fast becoming mainstream and appearing in all segments including large SUVs like the Volvo XC90 and luxury sports cars like the Porsche Panamera.

A hybrid differs from all-electric car because it uses two sources of energy, usually an internal combustion engine and an electric motor.

It's important, though, to understand there are three main different types of hybrids: electrically assisted, plug-in hybrids and range extenders.

The first category has an electric motor to add extra power when required. Range-extenders run on electric but also have a small petrol engine if emergency power is needed.

Plug-in hybrids are currently the most common.

The Toyota Prius is a trailblazer here, having been around in one form or another since 1997.

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Toyota Prius

Currently in its fourth generation, the latest Prius plug-in hybrid represent significant upgrades over the originals.

There are now three Prius models: the Prius, the Prius + and the Prius Plug-In. The Prius + is simply a seven-seat version of the Prius. The Plug-In is a higher-spec version of the Prius with higher-capacity battery packs and a longer electric-only range.

The new Prius Plug-In can also be driven at higher speeds using just its electric power and the recharging process is faster - as little as two hours for a full charge.

In the UK, the Plug-In comes in two trims: Business Edition Plus and Excel.

Equipment specifications are high, with both versions being equipped with Toyota Touch 2 with Go infotainment and navigation, colour head-up display, auto-dimming, auto-retracting door mirrors and heated front seats.

The car has also had a fairly big makeover, with fancier external styling to differentiate it from the regular Prius.

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Toyota Prius

It also has a bunch of other new technologies including a dual motor EV drive system and a battery warming system, plus two "world-firsts": an EV range-extending solar roof and gas-injection heat pump air conditioning.

The dual motor drive system is said to increase electric vehicle power by around 83 per cent using a compact, one-way gear within the transaxle to enable the hybrid system generator to act as a second electric motor.

This boosts driving power, giving better acceleration, more engaging performance and a higher maximum electric speed of 84mph.

The improved lithium ion battery sees capacity doubled from 4.4 to 8.8kW. It also includes a new battery warming system that will bring the cells up to an efficient working temperature during charging even in temperatures as low as -20°C.

The battery can be fully charged to 65 per cent more quickly - in two hours when using the Type II Mode III Mennekes connector, or three hours and 10 minutes using a standard household plug socket.

You can apparently drive for 30 miles on electric only, and the driving experience is said to be superior to the regular Prius.

There's a government plug-in car grant of £2,500 towards the purchase price, which means on-the-road prices for the Prius Plug-In start at £31,695.

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