First Look: 2012 Toyota Prius+

Contrary to popular belief, fuel economy and seating capacity are not inversely tied to one another. In fact, the Toyota Prius+, unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, promises to blend the versatility of an MPV with the fuel-sipping qualities of the company's famed hybrid.

If the new Prius+ looks familiar, it should. The new model is almost identical to the 2012 Prius V, which debuted earlier this year at the Detroit auto show. Both models are almost identical to the regular Prius hatchback from the A-pillars forward, but a 6-inch stretch in overall length and a taller roofline provide nearly 50 percent more cargo room.

Toyota claimed the Prius V stood for versatility, but ironically, the Prius+ may prove slightly more versatile. While the V retains seating for five, the Prius+ sports a small, third row of seating, bringing its passenger capacity up to 7. Those seating positions are perhaps best suited for small children (and on short trips, at that), but the 50/50 split bench can be folded flat for additional load space.

Mechanically speaking, the Prius+ is quite similar to both the Prius V and the original Prius. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive continues to blend a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter I-4 with an 80-horsepower electric motor through an electrically variable transmission. However, Prius+ models do ditch the typical nickel-metal hydride batter pack in favor of a lithium-ion battery -- a first for a production Toyota hybrid. The energy density offered by lithium-ion chemistry allowed engineers to craft a small battery and package it beneath the center console, potentially freeing up additional interior space.

As is the case with other Prius offerings, the Prius+ allows drivers to select from three different drive modes. An EV mode provides short spans of pure electric-powered driving. An ECO mode blends the engine and electric motor to achieve the best fuel economy possible, while the power setting combines both for maximum acceleration. Fuel economy figures haven't been announced for the Prius+, but it may perform similar to the Prius V. Toyota says Prius V models are estimated to achieve 42/38 mpg (city/highway) in EPA testing, which is down from the 51/48 mpg rating affixed to a standard Prius.

In North America, the Prius V may have no direct competition (except, perhaps, the Prius itself), but the Prius+ has its work cut out for it. The compact MPV segment is already crowded with vehicles like the Volkswagen Touran, Renault Scenic, Citroen C4 Picasso, and the Ford C-Max. Seeing as the Prius+ is expected to be priced in the low-30,000 pound range, only time will tell if the promise of hybrid technology, improved fuel economy, and the Prius' eco-friendly image will lure buyers into Toyota showrooms.

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