THE Toyota Prius may not be a sex magnet, but it provokes strong reactions often bordering on love or hate. These emotional responses helped Toyota establish its original hybrid car as a niche vehicle with a devoted following. But there is now an entire line of Priuses designed to be less polarizing and more attuned to the needs of middle-of-the-road Americans. In other words, as it has gone mainstream, the Prius has been Camryfied.
Since last summer, the familiar compact liftback version has been joined by the Prius V wagon, the Prius C subcompact and now the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. It is not so easy to spot the new Priuses from blocks away -- useful for avoidance maneuvers that can keep you from getting stuck behind the cars' famously slow drivers. The characteristic swoop of the aerodynamic roofline is subdued on the Prius V and nearly absent on the Prius C.
What hasn't disappeared is the hybrid powertrain technology that continues to be the core of every Prius. At this point, the technology seems less miraculous and more like a no-brainer: you save fuel by using an electric motor to assist the gasoline engine, which shuts off entirely at low speeds or when the car is at a standstill.
This technology gives all Priuses their telltale driving characteristics: an engine that shuts off at stoplights and performs adequately if unremarkably around town, but groans at high r.p.m. as it struggles to accelerate. Partly because of the cars' continuously variable transmission, there is a momentary lag after you step on the accelerator before the wheels gain momentum.
Most hybrids cannot be plugged in. With the addition of the Plug-in Hybrid to the Prius lineup, Toyota can now also appeal to its die-hard green customers who want to drive on grid-supplied energy. The Prius Plug-In joins the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma in this category, with the Ford C-Max Energi and a plug-in version of the Honda Accord to soon follow.
With all Priuses, efficiency is the priority, not plush accommodations or a sporty character. The interior has the feel of a high-tech gizmo, though one more akin to an older PC than to the latest Mac.
The real-world fuel economy is stellar with all four of the latest Priuses: from 40 to 70 miles per gallon depending on the model and how you drive.
Prius fans might talk in highfalutin terms about global warming and the like, but the secret to the success of the most familiar Prius -- now called the Liftback -- is its high level of overall competence with 50 m.p.g. efficiency. The car is functional, offering more legroom and cargo space than even in the popular midsize Toyota Camry.
So why bother with the other models? It comes down to how you use your car. For instance, the Prius V provides more space for family use, like weekend trips.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with my family of four to Big Sur from Berkeley for the weekend, a trip I'd be reluctant to take in the Liftback. There was plenty of room for our gear in the expanded cargo area, and our teenagers had room to stretch out in the back seat. Most important, they barely fought during the 300-mile trip. Sign me up.
Compared with the Liftback, the V is five inches longer over all, and its cargo volume is nearly 13 cubic feet larger. Nearly every measurement -- hip, shoulder and head -- increased by at least a couple of inches.
What's the trade off for the extra room? A dip in combined fuel economy from 51 city, 48 highway m.p.g. to 44 city, 40 highway. Both the Liftback and the V wagon have a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 60-kilowatt electric motor, for total horsepower of 134. In the V, the same hybrid system needs to pull 216 more pounds, so performance can be dull.
On the road to Big Sur, we moved at a leisurely pace in Eco mode, with minimal use of the air-conditioning, and easily managed 45 m.p.g. On the trip back, which was more uphill, the engine labored and the car barely reached its federal 40 m.p.g. highway estimate.
The extra space and flexibility comes at a price: the base-level Liftback is $24,795 and the Prius V starts at $27,335.
If the V is about highway travel, the downsized Prius C is all about the city, commuting and cuteness. The C shaves 19 inches off the Liftback and it's easy to park.
But adult passengers will suffer in the back seat, and the cheap ping of the closing doors -- a characteristic of all the Prius models -- felt even cheaper on the C. Buttons, dials and interfaces were plain. It's what you would expect for an entry-level car, this one offered at $19,745.
Actually, I had the most fun in the Prius C , despite giving up 35 horsepower. (The C has a 1.5-liter engine, compared with 1.8 liters for the others.) My test car was the only one of the four Priuses I drove that had a sunroof. Something about the C's diminutive size, and its slightly less geeky Prius profile, beckoned me to dart through traffic.
Indeed, I employed a heavy right foot in an effort to prove the E.P.A. wrong with its estimate of 53 m.p.g. in the city and 46 on the highway. But I managed only to pull down my real-world combined average to a still-impressive 43 m.p.g. If I had used the C as most Prius drivers are likely to, 50 m.p.g. would be a breeze.
Again, it comes down to why you need a car in the first place. The Prius C would best fit my transportation needs: to get efficiently from Point A to Point B, run errands mostly around town and make an occasional one-hour trip.
The latest of the four Priuses -- the Plug-In Hybrid -- requires the most thought about whether it matches your driving pattern. Starting at $32,760, it's the most expensive -- about $7,000 more than the Liftback and nearly $13,000 more than the Prius C. (With all options, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid tops $40,000.) The Plug-In qualifies for a $2,500 federal tax credit and, in California, a $1,500 state rebate. For some Californians there is another benefit: the Plug-In, unlike other hybrids including Priuses, qualifies a solo driver for the coveted car-pool lanes of crowded freeways.
The outward appearance of the Plug-In Hybrid is identical to the Liftback. The extra money essentially pays for a 4.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack -- the others have less advanced nickel-metal-hydride batteries -- that can be recharged with electricity from the power grid. Unlike the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid -- whose wheels are powered solely by electricity, with rare exceptions -- the pluggable Prius blends gas and electricity at various points of the drive cycle. For example, the gas engine usually comes on when the car starts up, to warm the squeaky-clean exhaust system.
Still, for the most part, the gas engine remains dormant for the first dozen miles or so. Thus the ride is very quiet, on par (during those miles) with many purely electric vehicles.
But since you're paying more for those batteries, a Prius shopper needs to evaluate whether the expense is worth it. Ideally, your daily drive would match the 11-mile range of the battery pack and you would then park next to an electric outlet. You need not worry about special charging equipment. Given the size of the battery relative to a pure electric car, charging is easy and takes only three hours with a standard 110-volt outlet. (A 220-volt supply speeds up a full charge to 1.5 hours.)
Here's the right pattern: charge up overnight; drive 11 miles; park and charge at work; drive 11 miles home; and charge again while you have dinner, watch TV or sleep. If you follow this pattern, your gasoline m.p.g. could stay in triple digits.
In my first five days with the Plug-In -- all short trips of 10 to 15 miles, punctuated by a couple of hours on my 220-volt charger at home -- I maintained an average of 74 m.p.g. But a single 80-mile jaunt reduced my week's score to 55 m.p.g. -- not a lot higher than I'd have experienced in the much cheaper Prius C if I'd driven it with a light foot.
For a green-minded driver, choosing among the four Prii -- all stylistically similar, all quite efficient -- is a pleasant exercise.
A dozen years ago, Toyota took an early lead on hybrids and it has never looked back. While competitors try to leap forward with new whiz-bang technology, Toyota is moving on to the next phase: adapting the technology for the mass market. The strategy is working. Toyota expects to sell about one million Priuses worldwide this year, and in September, Prius became the best-selling line of cars in California. Depending on where gas prices go, the rest of the country could follow.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.