The Toyota Prius is synonymous with hybrid cars and excellent fuel economy. No hybrid is recommended more in reviews, and at 50 mpg, Toyota's green-car icon is the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy without dipping your toe into the electric-vehicle pool. It's modern and roomy, but Toyota says it'd been hearing from Prius customers who wished for something more. Something bigger and even more practical, but still efficient -- still a Prius. This fall, those folks get their wish in the form of the 2012 Toyota Prius V, a larger Prius crossover/wagon that will join the Prius hatchback in showrooms. We drove the new Prius V at an event organized by Toyota earlier this week.
More space means more practicality
Even casual observers (i.e. most of humanity) will have no problems identifying the Prius V as a Prius. From the front especially, the Prius V looks a lot like its brother, with the same kind of headlights and general grill shape. If you were to put the regular hatch version next to the V, however, the differences become more apparent. While it still presents as a tidy, compact package, the Prius V is actually is longer, taller, and wider than the Prius hatchback. The result is a capacious, tall wagon that delivers room on par with (or superior to) a number of compact SUVs. Open the rear cargo door and you find 34.3 cubic feet of space with the back seats in use (40.2 cu. ft. if you slide the second-row seats all the way forward), or 67.3 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded completely down. In comparison, the regular Prius hatchback offers 21.6 cubic feet with the seats up and 39.6 cubic feet with the seats down. Put more simply, with the Toyota Prius V, you can set a course for Costco and not worry about having room to haul back the usual assortment of giant-sized impulse buys.
When you're hauling people in addition to cargo, don't expect to hear a lot of complaints. The front seats are comfortable, well-bolstered, and easy to adjust. We had no trouble finding a good driving position. Headroom is abundant in both seating rows, and nothing about sitting in the Prius V feels cramped. The back seat is split 60/40; the seats themselves slide fore and aft, and the seatbacks also recline. It's all part of a very flexible interior, whether you've got it configured for people, cargo, or both.
And the fuel economy?
The current crop of small SUVs and crossovers is pretty efficient, with combined city/highway mpg numbers in the mid to upper-20s now commonplace. In terms of fuel efficiency, the 2012 Toyota Prius V puts plenty of distance between itself and other compact sport-utes and crossovers. Using the same 134-horsepower (net) powertrain as its more compact sibling, the Prius V scores EPA ratings of 44 mpg city/40 mpg highway/42 mpg combined. Slippery aerodynamics and a variety of weight-saving measures throughout the car help make this happen.
Some of the weight-saving tricks are actually quite interesting. For instance, the top-of-the-line Prius V Five ("five" is the trim level) with the optional Advanced Technology Package is equipped with a fancy panoramic moonroof. Now, glass panoramic roofs make for great eye candy, but they're heavy. Instead of glass, the V's panoramic roof is made of a multilayer resin that's not only much lighter than glass, it also resists heat transfer more effectively, meaning it helps keep the cabin cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Out on the road
The most pleasant surprises came after we climbed behind the wheel of the Prius V. We partnered up with Fox News automotive editor Gary Gastelu for a couple of test loops, selecting a nicely appointed Prius V Five. (The other trim levels are Two [base] and Three [mid-grade]. The nomenclature lines up with equivalent equipment levels in the standard Prius. And yes, we think spelling out numbers as trim levels is weird, but whatever.)
Three things were immediately apparent once we got the Prius V Five out on the road: It's very quiet inside, ride quality is excellent, and the steering is clearly better than it is in the standard Prius, requiring a little more effort and delivering a little more feedback.
Usually, when you expand interior volume in a vannish hatchback like the Prius V, the cabin turns into a boom box that amplifies every sound coming through the suspension. Instead, the Prius V Five's passenger compartment is largely free of intrusive sounds, giving the car a premium feel. We later learned that the Prius V Five trim features a higher level of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) countermeasures, which explains how the interior stays so quiet.
And the handling is a revelation. Ride comfort is to be expected -- it's a strong point in the standard Prius, and it's logical that it would carry over here -- but the suspension tuning in the Prius V lets it hunker down and tackle curvy stretches with more aplomb than we'd have ever imagined. Put simply: it's fun.
The Prius V also features some nifty geek tech called "Pitch and Bounce Control." Basically, wheel-speed sensors tell the car when to use the torque from its electric motors to counteract the porpoising effect cars can experience when they're traversing uneven, undulating stretches of road. This helps keep the car level, and undoubtedly contributes to the flat handling we immediately took such a liking to.
At the end of our our test loops in the Prius V Five, I averaged 42.8 mpg and Gary was a few tenths shy of 40 mpg. I then went back out solo in a Prius V Two, the base model, and averaged 41.5 mpg on the same loop. The least expensive version of the Prius V comes with cloth seats, smaller wheels (16" instead of 17" on the Five), a non-self-dimming mirror, and more basic stereo features, but the Prius V Two drives just like the more expensive car...for the most part. Where it differs is cabin noise. It's definitely louder inside compared to the Prius V Five, with more pronounced sounds finding their way in as the suspension thumps over road imperfections. Wind noise also seemed a little more noticeable.
We should also note here that if you're running the audio system, you'll drown a lot of that stuff out. We made a point to drive with the stereo off most of the time to better observe the cabin noise.
Beyond that, the Prius V Two is just as rewarding, and it shows that you don't sacrifice much by going for the base car.
From the driver's seat, you're presented with a center-mounted digital instrument cluster. It's just like the one in the regular Prius: at eye level and easy to read. The rest of the controls are all logically arranged below it, labeled with the large, easy-to-read print Toyota is known for. All trim levels have touch-screen audio systems whose displays also show the image from the standard backup camera. Thankfully, you're not overburdened with buttons, and Toyota has developed an intuitive, simple climate control interface that lets you tap a big dial left or right to select temp or fan speed, and then just spin it to set to your liking. The simplicity of the in-car controls is welcome; it's not uncommon to climb into a new car nowadays and encounter a confusing, button-happy mess. The setup in the Prius doesn't require you to be a NASA engineer to feel comfortable.
We also sampled a prototype version of Entune, the new app-based infotainment system Toyota's rolling out with the Prius V. Featured in the Prius V Three and Five trims, Entune works via a smartphone app that you install on your phone, which then connects to the car. Entune then lets you use Bing as a POI database for the available nav system, stream music from services like Pandora, make restaurant reservations via OpenTable.com, and order tickets from Movietickets.com. You can also get sports scores, news, weather, traffic and other info from the system.
Entune requires that you have a smartphone with a data plan, and since the phone is essentially the delivery system supplying all the info, you need to have a signal for it to work. Toyota had Droid phones already set up in the Entune-equipped test cars, and we sampled Pandora and Bing. They worked as advertised. After Entune launches, additional features will be rolled out over time. When these become available, the user gets an update for his or her smartphone app, which, in turn updates the car the next time it's connected.
Summing up the 2012 Toyota Prius V
It's a formula for success: Make a bigger, more practical Prius that's fun to drive and gets 40+ mpg without breaking a sweat. Pricing won't be announced until closer to launch, but the base MSRP will start higher than the regular Prius. Toyota says it expects the Prius V to account for 15 to 20 percent of all Prius sales. Based on what we saw and experienced, that's a very conservative forecast, because the 2012 Toyota Prius V is a terrific car.