Ashland is road-testing a prototype Plug-In Prius for two months, and officials already like what they see.

Ashland is road-testing a prototype Plug-In Prius for two months, and officials already like what they see.

They've found they can drive around town indefinitely without putting gas in it, and if they have to take a long road trip, they can gas it up without the "range anxiety" of all-electric cars.

Toyota is road-testing 150 of the sleek little cars in the U.S., said Adam Hanks, city program manager, who said Ashland might use it to augment its current fleet of six hybrid passenger vehicles. The cars go on the market in spring 2012, but no sticker price is available yet.

The city is driving it at no cost and is reporting its evaluation to Toyota, but it's not evaluating it for purchase at this time, Hanks said.

The Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle (PHV) runs a modest 15 miles or so on a charge, making it adequate for city inspectors and auditors, said Hanks. Then the car's lithium-ion batteries — it has a bigger set than the present Prius — are plugged into regular 110-volt outlets, where they drink for six to eight hours on so-called "Level 1" chargers. Level 2 and 3 chargers do the job faster.

The Plug-In can be run on electric-only or as a hybrid.

Toyota wants the prototype to be tested by one driver over the two-month period, and the job has fallen to Larry Giardina, city conservation analyst, who makes frequent inspection trips around town.

Hanks likes the car, especially the 65 miles a gallon it got when he drove it down from Eugene, where it had been tested for two months.

"We want to figure out, is it effective and is it efficient? Myself, I see no fatal flaws in it," Hanks said. "It drives like a regular car. All cars have their pros and cons. The beauty of this program is that we get to drive it as part of the fleet and learn it close-up. Our goal is to make our city fleet as green as possible."

Hanks said compressed natural gas is good for trucks as a transition to that goal; and with passenger cars, electric or hybrid may be the answer.

The all-electric Nissan Leaf is OK as a local mail-delivery car, said Hanks, but it can't take trips until the state fulfills its vision of installing chargers all along freeways and main highways.

The Toyota Prius PHV is expected to cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than the current Prius, according to the New York Times.

The program for Oregon is being administered by Portland State University, which got 12 of the cars.

The city's description of its test program can be found on its website, which notes, "this free test period provides city staff an opportunity to evaluate the use of electric vehicles for routine city work, learn the technology associated with the vehicles and consider how they might be incorporated into the city fleet."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.