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2012 Toyota Prius v

March 6th, 2012

Can a Bigger Hybrid Actually Be Better?

      Toyota has had an enviable problem on their hands; how to capitalize on the brand equity that the Prius hybrid has gained. Last year Toyota announced plans to offer more Prius hybrids and introduced the world to the pluralization of the model with the designation Prii. With the Prius v, the world has gotten what seems to be a contradiction: a larger Prius. We drove a Barcelona Red Prius v to find out if bigger could be better.
       In case that lowercase v looks like a typo to you, well, it does to us too. We’ll humor Toyota only because they’ve chosen to designate Prius trim levels as One, Two, Three, Four and Five. Since our test car was the top trim level, our model was officially the Prius v Five. We admit to being easily confused, but we’re guessing the typical car buyer isn’t going to understand the designation either. We trust the person responsible for this nomenclature is awarded the smallest cubicle in the next office shuffle.
      We have certainly not hidden our dislike for the third generation Prius, which had previously been exclusively offered as a hatchback. Our frustrations seem myriad; Aztek-like rear hatchback styling, low grade interior materials, poor ergonomics that place the primary gauges in the center of the dash panel, industrial engine noises and last but not least, flacid handling characteristics. Wouldn’t the Prius v (think v for versatility) just be more of the same with a bit more cargo room and a bit less fuel efficiency? We are pleased to report that the v managed to be a little bit more.
      In the Japanese Domestic Market the v can be ordered with a 3rd row seat, but here in the States Toyota chose to treat all of its occupants to full size seats which meant omitting the child-size back row and limiting seating capacity to five. While this makes the Prius more of a tall wagon than a crossover or small van, it does offer the owner a rather copious cargo bay.
We particularly loved the gargantuan dual sunroof. One trick feature is that the sunshade retracts whenever the doors are locked presumably to reduce energy consumption by the climate control at start up.
     Driving dynamics aren’t noticeably better in the v compared to the standard Prius, but somehow knowing that this is a family wagon makes it more tolerable. Low rolling resistance tires are standard fare in the hybrid segment, which when coupled with a very non-communicative steering setup has us believing that almost any other vehicle on the market is more entertaining to drive hard than this. The powertrain also has the odd decoupled feel as the engine races as various speeds via the continuously vague–err, variable transmission. We must give Toyota credit in that this powertrain seems less intrusive than on previous Prius models we have tested. Toyota boasts that the suspension has been tuned for pitch and bounce control. We’ll trust that a lot of effort went into smoothing out the ride for this larger vehicle, but really, shouldn’t we expect a carlike ride in what really is just a car? Perhaps Toyota is assuring us that the v is up for the extra tasks demanded of a station wagon.


      We’re not overly fond of the gimmicky dash mounted gear shift, particularly because there is no ‘park’ setting. That function is activated through a separate button on the dash. We can report that the placement of the shifter is more intuitive and less obtrusive than that on the standard Prius. Interior materials are again perplexing in a vehicle at this price point. It carries much of the birch-bark textured dash materials from the smaller Prius, but somehow is a bit more pleasing in the layout. The part of the interior that we simply can’t understand is the sandpaper texture on the steering wheel. We have noted low grade materials on the steering wheels in Toyota’s Highlander, and to a much greater extent, the Venza. The center console is a bit tall with the prominent positioning of a single cupholder that somewhat obstructs an easy reach of the radio and HVAC controls. Fortunately there is a cupholder at the front base of the console, but laughably pushes the lower console rubber mat forward when operated. It is a simple design flaw that will have most owners stashing that mat in the glove box.The Prius v now offers the latest Entune Multimedia system. This system integrates the operator’s smartphone with the vehicle’s onboard infotainment system to stream radio and data for basic apps like Bing search and MovieTickets.com.
      While we have never been fans of the hunchback styling typical of so many energy conscious cars today, the Prius v actually looks quite good aft of the c-pillar. The wagon styling gives the Prius a flatter roof and the stylists a bit more liberty with the design of the hatch. The car is still cursed with dual A-pillars framing the expansive dash, but the overall look is much improved over the indifferent styling of the standard Prius. The extra height and weight of the Prius v drops the fuel mileage from 51/48 mpg city/highway on the liftback to 44/40 for the v. Even so, Toyota went to great strides to maintain maximum efficiency with its wagon. The massive sunroof is made of polycarbonate material rather than heavier glass. Additionally the air conditioning compressor is electrically activated meaning that the engine is not required for cooling the vehicle.
      All of this added versatility does not come cheaply. Our test car started at $29,990 and added a staggering $5,580 for the advance technology package ringing up an as tested price of $36,330 with destination. That’s a lot more dough than the standard Prius liftback’s $24,000 starting price. Is the price increase worth it? Perhaps not for our loaded model, but we can certainly say that the Prius v is a much more pleasant and practical vehicle than its less costly liftback stablemate. In fact, the Prius v suggests that in the case of Toyota’s hybrid family bigger is definately better.

The Good:
Wagon versatility and styling combined with Prius economy.
The Bad:
Uncommunicative steering, sounds of despair from the engine compartment.
The Verdict:
The Prius v proves that even in the world of hybrids bigger is better.

Photos by Jason Muxlow

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