Maybe you imagine all Toyota Prius owners as terminal bachelors who log every fill-up, draft off 18-wheelers and count the days until the plug-in model goes on sale. But most Prius drivers aren't so different from the rest of us. They get married, they have children and they have pets, too. And with all that comes the need for more space. Enter the 2012 Toyota Prius V.
"Some families with young children want the efficiency of the Prius, but the standard liftback just doesn't have the kind of room they're looking for," Bob Carter, Toyota division group vice president and general manager, says. "A lot of them are migrating to SUVs for the utility."
Conveniently, the longer, taller 2012 Toyota Prius V (and that's Vee, not Five) matches the dimensions of your typical compact crossover SUV. Yet this biggest of Prii still drives like a wagon and will be classified as such by the EPA.
By Popular Demand, No Third-Row Seat
You might be wondering why the 2012 Toyota Prius V only seats five. After all, the nearly identical Japanese-spec Prius Alpha prototype we drove in March had a third-row seat, as will the European-spec Prius+.
Blame the lack of demand. Less than 5 percent of American buyers have been opting for a third-row seat in the similarly sized Toyota RAV4. "People looking for seven-passenger capacity are shopping one class up," Carter tells us.
Further, it turns out you can't just stuff a fold-flat third row into a hybrid wagon that normally has a nickel-metal hydride battery pack under its cargo floor. First, you've got to ditch those batteries, then find a place to put a smaller lithium-ion battery pack — in the Prius+ and Prius Alpha, Toyota chose the center console, reducing available storage in that location to almost nil.
For all that effort, the switch to Li-ion batteries wouldn't actually raise the 2012 Prius V's EPA rating, which the automaker pegs at 44 city/40 highway/42 combined mpg. However, it certainly would raise the price, and Toyota doesn't think we'd accept that trade for a seat we'd rarely use.
A Bigger Second Row
Of course, Toyota hasn't ruled out the possibility of giving us a seven-seat Prius down the road. For now, though, this hybrid wagon is plenty useful as a five-seater. Compared to a regular Prius, the Prius V is 6 inches longer, 3 inches taller and 1 inch wider. It also rides on a 3-inch-longer wheelbase and a slightly wider track. All the extra length goes straight into the cargo bay, which measures 34.3 cubic feet versus 21.6 cubic feet in the standard Prius.
It feels like legroom has increased, too, probably because the rear seats offer a good range of fore/aft adjustment. You can also recline the seats, and combined with useful gains in hip- and shoulder room, this backseat is friendly for 6-footers and rear-facing baby seats alike. Headroom is only up an inch in the Prius V because Toyota has raised the driver's hip point. So you sit higher in the wagon, but it feels surprisingly natural.
The Power of a Prius
Of course, with all that extra sheet metal comes extra weight, in this case 230 pounds versus the standard model. Considering its mission of utility, though, the 2012 Toyota Prius V still weighs in at a svelte 3,274 pounds.
Then again, no car really feels svelte when it's motivated by Toyota's 98-horsepower Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Even in Power mode, our Prius V takes a long time getting up to speed with two adults onboard — so it's a good thing we're in hybrid-friendly Northern California, where people just assume we're hypermilers.
Toyota estimates its hybrid wagon will hit 60 mph in 10.4 seconds, and we can't imagine it happening a moment sooner. We've timed a regular Prius at 9.7 seconds to 60.
As you may recall, the 2ZR-FXE engine gets help from an 80-hp front-drive electric motor drawing juice from the NiMH batteries, while a second electric motor acts as a generator. A planetary gearset blends the two power sources and feels for all the world like a CVT (continuously variable transmission) to the Toyota Prius V driver. Total system power is 134 hp just like in the Prius hatch.
Toyota has fitted a shorter 3.704 final drive to the Prius V (versus 3.268 on the standard hatch) to improve off-the-line response. We'd probably lose our patience with the car without that shorter gear, but there's little doubt it contributes to the V's lower mpg versus a regular Prius (51/48/50) — along with the wagon's extra weight and less slippery body (0.29 coefficient of drag versus a 0.25 Cd on the Prius hatch). But the Prius V still beats the diesel Jetta wagon (30/42), Ford Escape Hybrid (34/31) and Fusion Hybrid (41/36).
Other changes on the 2012 Toyota Prius V include the addition of a water jacket for the generator electric motor to improve cooling performance and a revised exhaust heat recirculation system that speeds engine warm-up.
Big Prius Has a Nice Ride
As long as you plan your passes, the 2012 Prius V is actually enjoyable on the freeway, as its longer wheelbase makes for a smoother ride. It's a quiet ride, too, with little intrusion from wind and road noise on Interstate 280.
Spring and damper rates are updated for the wagon, and Toyota has fitted separate bushings for the front springs and dampers to give the engineers more leeway in tuning the suspension. In addition, Toyota is using the car's wheel speed sensors to detect freeway hop, and the hybrid drive system makes minute adjustments in torque response to counteract it.
Handling is still not something you talk about when you drive a 2012 Toyota Prius V. We manage not to hold anyone up on Skyline Boulevard (the old route to San Francisco), but there aren't many sportbikes out in the middle of a workday. The electric power-assisted steering has a new map, but it feels like familiar Prius steering — very light, with minimal feedback.
The bigger Prius also gets larger brakes and a longer pedal stroke. The wagon's ventilated front rotors measure 10.8 inches across (versus 10.0 on the hatchback), while the solid rear discs are 11.5 inches in diameter (versus 10.2). The transitions between regenerative braking and these conventional friction brakes are smooth and refined in city traffic.
I'm Entune With My Prius
Toyota will sell the 2012 Prius V in three trim levels — Two, Three and Five — and they're only confusing if you're not already immersed in Prius culture. See, a normal Prius comes in One, Two, Three, Four and Five variations, and the equipment levels on the Prius V trims match up with their hatch equivalents.
The Prius V Two is your base model, and we expect it to start just shy of $26,000. It comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, P205/60R16 Yokohama BluEarth S34 all-season tires, a keyless ignition, automatic climate control, a 6.1-inch audio system touchscreen, a back-up camera, USB/auxiliary inputs, and Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming capability.
If you want factory navigation with traffic updates, the Prius V Three adds that functionality to the car's touchscreen interface, along with a telescoping steering wheel. It also adds the Entune system, which Toyota is launching on the Prius V and Tacoma this fall.
To use Entune, you'll need to install an app on your iPhone, Android phone, Windows phone or BlackBerry, and then you'll have access to the Bing search engine, Pandora, iHeart radio, OpenTable and a growing list of apps on the car's touchscreen via the Bluetooth connection. As with all new technology, there's some trial and error involved, but being able to look up POIs on Bing that the hard-drive-based navigation couldn't otherwise find is very useful.
Finally, there's the Prius V Five wagon, which is likely to shatter the $30,000 barrier, given that its hatch equivalent lists at $29,550. The big upgrade is the SofTex simulated leather upholstery (if you want real cow hides, you're as bad as people who wear fur coats), which replaces the cheesy cloth found in lower-line models. You also get 17-inch wheels with P215/50R17 Toyo Proxes tires, LED headlamps and keyless functionality on the passenger door and liftgate.
An optional advanced technology package on the Five bundles a whole bunch of items we'd rather buy separately. Headlining the list is an upgraded audio-navigation system with a higher-resolution 7-inch screen and JBL GreenEdge sound components, which are said to be lighter and less power-hungry than normal JBL parts. Also included are adaptive cruise control and Toyota's self-parking system.
Let's Have Another Kid
Toyota has carefully planned the expansion of the Prius family, and the automaker isn't about to do something drastic that could alter the aura of piety and frugality surrounding the Toyota Prius nameplate. So the first new family member is the 2012 Toyota Prius V. It's just a little bit larger and it should only cost a couple grand more.
And for that extra money, you'll get a genuinely useful five-passenger hybrid wagon with plenty of room for kids and kid paraphernalia. However, the Prius V really strains the standard Prius powertrain. It has a nice ride and all, but there's no getting around the fact that it's slow — and that a Jetta TDI wagon is less slow.
However, Toyota is only looking to sell the Prius V to 25,000 patient souls annually. And far from stealing sales from the Prius hatchback (which topped 140,000 units in 2010), the 2012 Prius V is expected to bring in families who otherwise would have ended up in a crossover SUV. We just hope not to get stuck behind them on Skyline Boulevard.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.