As the world's first mass-produced gasoline-electric car, the Toyota Prius has become the iPod of hybrids. More than 2 million of these automotive icons have been sold since the Prius was introduced in 1997, with mostly minor changes to its aerodynamic profile.
But that's about to change with the 2012 Prius v — a larger version that looks as if growth hormones were slipped into the tank. Due in showrooms in October, the v — for "versatility" — lengthens the rear cargo hold on the regular Prius and ratchets up the hatch, opening up far more space in the back 40 without sacrificing too many miles per gallon. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a combined fuel economy rating of 42 mpg. In my real-world test of the car, I averaged 41.3.
That runs right over the competition for a comparably sized four-door five-seater, especially when factoring in the v's expected $26,000 price tag. Traditional hybrids still offer an upfront price advantage over plug-in hybrids and pure electrics. The electric Chevrolet Volt, for example, costs $33,500 even after applying the $7,500 federal tax credit.
And the Prius offers yet another draw: an evolved and proven drivetrain.
The Prius v is powered with the same Hybrid Synergy Drive as the third-generation Prius introduced last year. Its 1.8-liter gasoline engine works in combination with a pair of high-output electric motors and nickel-metal hydride batteries to make 134 net horsepower. Like the regular Prius, the Prius v can be driven in gas, electric or a combined gas-electric mode, as determined by an onboard computer programmed to maximize efficiency. The interplay between the engine and motor is, for the most part, unnoticeable.
What's new with the Prius v is that drivers can select between different drive modes by pressing buttons situated in the center console, within easy reach of idle fingers. There is no gear shift. The Prius v uses a continuously variable transmission. "Eco" is for fuel economy. "EV" prompts the car to run on battery power alone. "Power" increases throttle response. Without pressing the buttons, the car defaults to "normal."
Driving in Eco mode might be good for the planet but at times it makes the car feel underpowered. The Prius v strains to propel its 3,274 pounds forward. There was such a lag between pressing the accelerator and actually gaining speed from a dead stop that it felt a bit like driving a locomotive.
Cruising in EV mode is a short-lived experience. The vehicle is responsive, but it can only operate this way for less than a mile. That's by design. No matter what mode you choose, the Prius v often defaults to battery power for short periods to increase efficiency. So a separate button doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Power mode was by far the most responsive and satisfying, though drivers will pay the price at the pump. Driving on the highway, I glanced at the dashboard and saw my fuel economy sink ever so slightly from 42 mpg to about 40. So I restricted my use of Power to city traffic, when I'd get the most fun out of it.
Like most alternative drivetrain cars, the Prius is equipped with a coaching mechanism to help the lead-footed cultivate a lighter touch. A simple, easy-to-read graphic lets drivers see when they're pigging out on fuel or are giving power back to the battery when slowing or braking.
Oddly, this information is displayed in a wide screen at the top of the center stack, which rises like a hooded cobra from the broad, black-plastic dash. There aren't any gauges directly in front of the driver, which helps explain why the graphics are so large: They're farther away from the driver than normal.
I was driving the Prius v Three — a mid-level trim with 16-inch wheels that, considering the car's size, didn't seem undersized or to compromise handling that was, for its dimensions, nimble. There is also a base-model Two and top-of-the-line Five, the latter of which is available with advanced technologies including a hard-drive navigation system, a panoramic moon roof and emergency assistance.
The Three comes with enhanced audio and a 6.1-inch touch screen for navigation, as well as a backup camera display that, unfortunately, does not negate the annoying, delivery-truck-style beeping that kicks in when the car is placed in reverse.
Otherwise, the technology is user-friendly. Ripping a page from Ford's technology playbook, the Prius v marks the debut of a new technology called Entune. Similar to MyFord Touch, Entune enables hands-free phone calling, iTunes tagging, Bluetooth music streaming and Pandora Internet radio listening. It also comes equipped with apps for Bing, OpenTable and Movietickets.com as well as a text-to-voice system that can read cellphone text messages.
But what's most notable about this car is the amount of interior space it offers in a vehicle that's so fuel efficient. The Prius v's driver visibility, passenger legroom and cargo capacity are value-added improvements over the regular Prius. Although the Prius v is roughly the same height as the regular Prius up to the car's midsection, the front seats are slightly taller, making it feel more like an SUV from the cockpit. And, although it has grown only six inches in length, the back hatch has been lifted, providing far more vertical and horizontal space.
Collapsing the 60/40 rear seat opens up 97.2 cubic feet of room — enough for a lifetime supply of Boogie Boards. The front passenger seat also folds flat, creating an even longer space along one side for surfboards, or, perhaps, even a kayak. There are, however, slight gaps between the collapsed seats and the cargo floor. It isn't a seamless, smooth floor from back to front.
Still, in my time with the car, this large-format Prius inspired more than a few approving looks from middle-aged drivers piloting Volvo wagons and other European imports. "Finally," their eye contact seemed to say, "a car that will let me carry my titanium mountain bike without the Hummer footprint. Hmm."
That holy-grail combo is clearly in demand.
Earlier this week, Toyota announced a collaboration with Ford that will expand its hybridization to even larger vehicles, including sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. The two major auto companies are joining forces to develop a new advanced, rear-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain more quickly and affordably than either manufacturer could accomplish on its own, Toyota said in a statement.
Until then, the Toyota Prius v will more than suffice.