What it is: The Prius Plug-In Hybrid is a Prius that has a hybrid system, but the battery capacity is greatly increased, so you can drive an estimated eleven miles without utilizing the gas engine at all. Unlike a purely electric vehicle, the Prius Plug_in Hybrid has a gasoline engine that switches over seamlessly when you the battery system has been depleted.

While eleven miles doesn't sound like a distance that should matter much, it represents the first eleven miles every time you leave a charging station. The EPA rates electric mode operation in MPGe (Miles Per Gallon equivalent), and the Prius is rated at 96 MPGe. This is interpreted as meaning that the amount of money you spend on electricity to drive those eleven miles is equivalent to spending an equal amount of money on gasoline. And remember, any gasoline you use will be roughly 50 MPG, so you'll be sipping on costs either way.

Charging time doesn't take that long either. A standard 120V charger takes three hours, while a 240V charger takes 90 minutes. More and more chargers are becoming available in public which you probably pass by everyday without noticing. I recently noticed free charging station at EcoPark at IAH airport and in the terminal parking garages. Private companies such as NRG's eVgo service (www.nrgevgo.com/texaswww.nrgevgo.com/texas) will let you pay a fee and charge there. The eVgo service actually has a charging station along Highway 59 at Northpark Dr. near Cracker Barrel. While one of the benefits of the Prius Plug-In Hybrid is that you don't have to charge when you are out and about, they do provide you an option to operate in a gas-free manner.

The Prius is fun to drive with plenty of low-end torque from the electric motors, and sports a large interior volume and smooth ride. There isn't any new ground being broken with the plug-in version, so if you have ridden in a normal Prius, then the plug-in iteration won't have any surprises.

MPG: 96 MPGe on electric power / 50 MPG on gasoline power.

Price: Base-price $29,990

Upsides: Incredibly efficient, and potential to operate completely gas-free. Low MSRP

Downsides: Most buyers will find it hard to pay the price premium over a normal Prius while the original is already so efficient.

Wrap-up: I love these 'dual-mode' hybrid cars that allow significant driving without using gasoline, but also letting you take road trips on gasoline without worry of running out of electric charge. There's no reason to doubt the technology at this point, and Toyota has been a leader in hybrid technology for many years. If you are thinking about a Prius, then sit down and take a good look at the Plug-In Hybrid version as well because it may make sense if you want to further reduce your emissions output and eek out better fuel cost efficiency as well. Does it make sense on a purely fiscal basis (a 'normal' Prius starts $5,700 less)? Almost certainly not, but it isn't too far off to make it a tempting choice for enthusiasts.

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