2012 Toyota Prius V
Form follows function, so it's easy to find one element of a vehicle that explains everything you need to know about it.
Look at the widened haunches of a 911 and you know there's serious hardware in the Porsche's rump. Check the elongated bed of an F-150 and its obvious the Ford should be roaming free on the ranch. Look at a Smart ForTwo... Actually, don't. It's for your own good.
So when I opened the door to the 2012 Toyota Prius V, a single feature stood out: the cupholder. Encircled in a chrome ring and mounted dead-center in the massive armrest, this lone receptacle was the defining feature of the interior. As it should be. The Prius is the commensurate commuter and the V variant's raised roof and enlarged hatch make it even more practical for Mommy and Daddy carpool duty. At least in theory.
A cursory look at the interior stats are enough to convince you of the Prius V's added utility over its liftback sibling. With the rear seats in place you've got 34.3 cubic feet of storage in the way back, expanding to 67.3 cubes when you fold the seats flat. That's more space than the current Ford Escape and Nissan Rogue and easily eclipses the standard Prius' 21.6/39.6 cubic-feet. But the way you access that trunk space is where the compromise comes in.
Because of the nickel-metal hydride battery pack mounted below the cargo area, the loading area is unusually high for a vehicle of this size. We are, after all, talking about a five-passenger mini-minivan, and when compared to something like the Mazda5, it's easier to get things in and out of the trunk when the load floor is closer to knee height.
Interestingly, Toyota has begun selling a near duplicate of the Prius V in Europe under the Prius+ moniker, which ditches the trunk-mounted nickel-metal hydride pack for more modern and efficient lithium-ion cells. The reason for the switch? Toyota added a third row to the Prius+ and had to move the battery pack somewhere. It proved the perfect time to upgrade the batteries, but also meant their new position in the center console nearly eliminated all the storage capacity. More over, the new packs wouldn't increase fuel economy but would increase the price, and that's a trade-off Toyota apparently wasn't willing to make in the U.S. Still, we would've liked to see the upgraded batteries matched with a lower cargo floor in place of the (sure to be cramped) third row.
However, the stretched wheelbase (around three inches) of the V does provide rear seat passengers more leg room and those same seats have been modified to slide forward and back, recline and lie flat(ish) for a dozen different configurations.
As you'd expect with a vehicle that's been stretched by around six inches, fitted with a more traditional roof and a larger hatch, the curb weight of the Prius V has grown, but not by a massive margin. Overall weight is up to 3,274 – about 200 pounds more than the liftback – but because of a slight boost in battery output to 650 volts and a new axle ratio (from 3.268:1 to 3.704:1, for you geeks), acceleration and the general ability to keep pace with the rest of the motoring world is roughly on par with the standard Prius.
But that's still not saying much.
The same Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter four-cylinder is fitted to the V, outputting 98 asthmatic horsepower. But combined with the electric motor, overall output comes in at 134 hp at 5,200 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Naturally, the plus side of such a miserly engine/motor combination is fuel economy, and the V delivers with an EPA estimated 44 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway and 42 combined. Over a week of errand-running, short road-tripping and a few blasts into the city, I managed 37.3 mpg overall – something that would surely be improved as one adapts to the Prius' throttle characteristics.
Just like it's slightly smaller brother, optimum throttle control in the V is an exercise in microscopic ankle flexes, minute toe movements and regular cursing when slipping out of full electric mode. As you've undoubtedly heard before, trying to keep that four-cylinder from ticking over turns into a game, something that's even more challenging with the V thanks to its additional heft.
Ahead of that massive cupholder are three driving modes: Power, Eco and EV. EV gives you a slightly longer leash to go fully electric, but the smallest of foot flexes sends it right back into normal mode, the engine clicking over to deliver the requested power. Eco is similar, retarding engine output, sticking to higher gears and setting more resistance to the throttle pedal. And again, as soon as you demand even the slightest increase in thrust, you're back to Normal mode. So here's a tip: Just keep it in Normal and quit playing games.
Surprisingly, after more than 10 years on the market, Toyota still hasn't cracked the code on brake pressure and modulation with its regenerative discs. The stoppers continue to be too grabby at low speeds and less than confidence inspiring when forced to slow rapidly on the freeway. What makes this all the more surprising is Volkswagen is about to release the Jetta Hybrid and the braking system on a prototype we drove recently was remarkably superior to the Prius. And it's still in "beta."
Other bits that carry over from the Prius liftback are the general ergonomics of the interior, including the center-mounted instrument panel that you either love or loathe. The display provides all the pertinent hybrid, fuel economy and system information, but we'd still prefer a traditionally placed instrument panel behind the wheel.
The added glass and higher roof predictably provided more perspective out back, something that's always been hit or miss with the standard Prius. The seats both front and rear are coated in faux leather and are cushy enough to keep your rear comfy during your daily slog to middle managementdom.
Toyota's iPhone and Android-connected suite of services – Entune – includes everything from traffic data to streaming music. I tested this version and an updated Entune within two weeks of each other and each has their plusses and minuses. The updated setup is easier to navigate and connect with, while the older software did surprisingly better with voice recognition. The V should be getting the updated software as you read this and came as part of the $5,580 Advanced Technology Package, the most expensive kit available on our "Five" model, which rang up to a barely palatable $36,692 (including destination) as a result.
Nix the Advanced Technology Package and you lose the panoramic moon roof, premium HDD navigation system (a "lesser" nav system with Entune still comes standard), radar-based cruise control, Toyota's OnStar-like Safety Connect system and a couple of other passive safety systems, but the price settles at just above $30k. For that kind of coin, you're into a whole new class of compact crossovers, and what's coming out in the next few years might not match the V's eco-cred or fuel economy numbers, but they'll be a lot closer than they are today.
With the Prius line officially a family of three, made up of the standard liftback, smaller Prius C and Prius V (not to mention the plug-in version), all of which are either on the market or coming soon, the question becomes: Why didn't Toyota go all the way with the V? Stretch the platform even further, shove in a brace of lithium ion batteries into a less intrusive position and maybe even give it an occasional-use third row. Doing that wouldn't just have it competing with the whole of the compact crossover range, but put it into a class of one – just like the original Prius did over a decade ago.
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