You know what the Toyota Prius is and all that it stands for. The third generation of the iconic hybrid vehicle debuted two years ago. Now we’ve driven the Prius v, which Toyota unveiled at last January’s 2011 Detroit auto show. It’s the first time that Toyota has affixed the Prius badge to a vehicle that’s bigger than the current-generation hatchback and its predecessor, the car that made the Prius name a household word.
As you might or might not have guessed, the use of the twenty-second letter of the alphabet as part of the new, bigger Prius’s badge is to emphasize its increased versatility, as compared with the standard hatchback model. Toyota lowercases and italicizes the v in an attempt to get people to pronounce the car’s name as “Prius vee” rather than “Prius five.” Um, good luck with that, Toyota; we suspect that you’ll have a 50:50 success rate. Many people are going to read the v as a Roman numeral.
Adding to the nomenclatural confusion, Toyota has designated three equipment levels for the Prius, and they’re known numerically, like the regular Prius models are. So we have the Toyota Prius v Two (base model); the Toyota Prius v Three (the midline model); and the Toyota Prius v Five (the top-of-the-line model). Perhaps Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., should have followed Toyota Europe’s lead and named our car the Prius+.
HOW MUCH BIGGER IS IT?
The 2012 Toyota Prius v isn’t the size of a Ford Explorer, but it’s appreciably bigger than the regular Prius. “My biggest goal in developing the Prius v was utility and space,” says chief engineer Hiroshi Kayukawa, who made the obligatory journey to America to haunt Home Depot parking lots and visit famous tourist sites before returning to his 1500-member development team in Toyoda City to start work on the Prius v. One imagines that his conclusions were simple: “Yep, Americans are big and they buy too much big stuff at big-box stores. So let’s make the Prius v as big of a box as we can.”
The Prius v is built on the same Toyota MC platform as the regular Prius, with a Macpherson-strut front suspension and torsion-beam rear. Base wheels and tires are sixteen inches, up from fifteen inches in the regular Prius, and seventeens are optional. The wheelbase is 3.1 inches longer, at 109.4 inches; overall length is 6.1 inches longer, at 181.7 inches (15.1 feet); the vehicle is 3.3 inches higher, at 62.0 inches; and it’s 1.1 inches wider, at 69.9 inches. Interior volume rises by 3.5 cubic feet, to 97.2 cu ft. There’s marginally more head, shoulder, and hip room both front and rear, but front legroom, strangely enough, is down 1.2 inches.
As for cargo space, one of the attributes that caused some potential buyers of the existing third-generation Prius to go elsewhere? It rises from 21.6 cubic feet behind the rear seats to 34.3 cubic feet, or 40.2 cubic feet when the seats are fully forward. With a driver and a front-seat passenger in place and the rear seats folded, the air space behind them rises dramatically, from 39.6 cubic feet for the third-generation Prius to 67.3 cubic feet in the v. To put these figures into perspective, a Toyota Camry sedan has 15 cubic feet of cargo capacity, so the Prius v has almost a Camry’s worth of additional space behind the rear seats when they’re occupied, and when those seats are folded, it has the equivalent of nearly two Camry trunks in additional cubic footage available under its sloping rear roofline.
The Prius v’s H-point (the distance from an average person’s hip joint to the ground) is 30 mm (1.2 inches) higher for front-seat occupants and 80 mm (3.1 inches) higher in the rear. This gives the Prius v some measure of the higher seating position that many people like in crossovers and SUVs.
The Prius v has a 3274-lb curb weight, which is 232 lb more than the regular Prius’s 3042-lb weight; not a bad weight penalty considering the increase in vehicle size. Toyota says that the 0-to-60-mph time is 10.4 seconds, versus 9.8 seconds for the standard Prius.
DOES IT HAVE THE SAME POWERTRAIN AS THE REGULAR PRIUS?
Yes, indeed, it does. The 2012 Toyota Prius v shares its Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain with the regular, third-generation Prius hatchback. It consists of a 1.8-liter, Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder gasoline engine making 98 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque; a power-control unit; a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack; and an electric hybrid transaxle. Total output is 134 hp. One thing that’s new is a cooling jacket for the transaxle to cool the two permanent-magnet electric-motor/generators. Gear selection for the CVT (continuously variable transmission) is via a dash-mounted lever that you pull to the bottom of the gate into D for drive or back up for R for reverse; to select P for Park, you press a separate button located above this gear lever.
HOW DOES ITS FUEL ECONOMY COMPARE WITH THAT OF THE REGULAR PRIUS?
“I knew I had to focus on two areas for the Prius v to achieve good fuel economy,” recalls Kayukawa: “Aerodynamics and weight reduction. We concentrated on air flow over the back of the roof and the rear flanks, and we achieved a coefficient of drag of 0.29.” So-called “aero corners” on the front and rear bumpers and a carefully designed rear spoiler helped with this. Molded into the headlights are little eyebrows that separate the air and move it around the side mirrors.
EPA numbers are not yet finalized, but Toyota estimates 44-mpg city, 40-mpg highway, 42-mpg combined ratings. This compares with 51/48/50 mpg in the conventional Prius. In our own drives near Half Moon Bay, California, south of San Francisco, we achieved 37 mpg on a 48-mile loop that included hilly, mountainous Skyline Blvd.; and 40 mpg on a 44-mile loop that included ten miles of freeway, a long stretch of California Highway 1, and more of Skyline Blvd. These routes were hardly indicative of the average American’s urban/suburban commute, and we were not driving gingerly, so the Prius did pretty well.
IT DRIVES A LOT LIKE A REGULAR PRIUS
You push a button on the dash to turn on the vehicle, which starts in electric mode. A new warning tone for pedestrians, not audible from inside the car, sounds a bit like a sucking noise through a tube. This is to compensate for the fact that, at low speeds, there’s no conventional engine noise to alert pedestrians to the presence of the Prius.
The huge, broad windshield makes for excellent forward visibility. You can manually elevate the driver’s seat quite a bit, so you feel like you’re riding high, or you can pump the seat down toward the floor and you feel like you’re appreciably closer to the ground.
There’s lots of CVT drone and mooing as the Prius v struggles to accelerate up the mountain toward Skyline Blvd. This is not exciting. Once we’re bounding along this mountaintop road through the trees, though, the Prius provides reasonable and predictable body control. There’s decent heft in the steering, but it feels artificially weighted and isn’t linear off-center. Still, it’s easy to place the car in a corner, and after driving the Prius on a number of challenging roads at a pace that few drivers ever will, we’d say it ain’t bad at all. Sure, there’s the usual oddness to the brake pedal response, but that improves a bit if you move the gear lever into the B setting to engage more engine braking.
Southbound on the 280, we noticed some wind rush over the A-pillars and a bit of road noise, but the Prius v has a very comfortable freeway ride. A new Pitch and Bounce Control system varies the amount of torque the hybrid motor sends to the front axle to suppress pitch and dive. It’s subtle, but it does appreciably help keep this bigger, longer Prius on an even keel.
INSIDE THE BIGGEST PRIUS YET
As standard, the seats are upholstered in fabric. A new, leather-like fabric called SofTex is optional. To call it vinyl is unfair, because it’s soft and nice; Toyota says it weighs 28 percent less than leather and emits fewer VOC’s during production. The lid of the center console bin, which acts as an armrest, is upholstered in a swath of suede-like material. A wide instrument binnacle stretches across the center of the dash and contains the speedometer, fuel gauge, and other readouts. At the bottom of the center stack, a newly designed climate-control dial toggles left to right to move between mode, temperature, and fan speed; it’s a nicely designed mechanism.
The real news is in the rear seat. Huge rear doors and a two-level interior curb make ingress and egress easy. Parents should find it easy to step into the vehicle to install child seats and to secure rug rats into them. Sitting behind a five-foot, eleven-inch driver, I found plenty of rear-seat foot room, as your feet can extend under the front seats. There’s generous leg and knee room and good side visibility, plus a comfortable pull-down center armrest. The center seating position is awkward and rigid but it will be fine for short trips. The 60/40-split rear bench slides back and forth more than seven inches, so you can choose between more legroom and more cargo room. The seatbacks recline between 17 and 45 degrees.
PANORAMIC VIEWS, PANDORA, AND OTHER GOODIES
An optional panoramic moon roof for the top-spec Prius v Five uses two fixed polycarbonate roof panels, which are 50 percent lighter than a similarly sized glass roof would be. Although the windows don’t open, they let in lots of light; a power roller shade can cover them completely.
A back-up camera is standard on all three Prius v grades, and radar cruise control is available as part of the Advanced Technology Package on the Five. An available JBL GreenEdge stereo weighs 4.2 lb less than a similar unit on the regular Prius and puts fewer demands on the alternator. Toyota makes much about its new Entune system, whereby you use an app on your smart phone to access Bing maps, Iheartradio, sports, weather, Pandora, and other services, all streamed through your mobile device but accessed through the touch screen. We had no luck getting Pandora to work in our first test car but in another vehicle it worked fine and we were hitting the thumbs-up and thumbs-down images on the touch screen to fine-tune our music preferences.
FUTURE PRIUS PLANS
Toyota has already confirmed that it will introduce a plug-in-hybrid Prius, similar to the Chevy Volt, in the first half of 2012. The company will also bring us its smallest Prius yet, based on the Prius C concept, sometime next year. “I see Prius eventually leading Toyota sales here in the United States,” says Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. “The Prius family defines Toyota today.” Carter says that, including the aforementioned new Prius models, Toyota will introduce some ten new hybrid models across its Toyota and Lexus brands over the next twenty months, and six will be entirely new.
2012 Toyota Prius v
Base price range, estimated: $26,000-$31,000
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4
Horsepower: 98 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 105 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Hybrid Battery Pack
28 nickel-metal-hydride 7.2-volt modules, cooling blower and control
Two liquid-cooled, permanent-magnet motors (MG1 & MG2)
650-volt operating voltage
Wheelbase: 109.4 in
L x W x H: 181.7 x 69.9 x 62.0 in
Legroom F/R: 41.3/35.9 in
Headroom F/R: 39.6/38.6 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 34.3/67.3 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3274 lb
EPA fuel economy, estimated (city/highway/combined): 44/40/42 mpg