Let’s cut right to the chase here: The 2012 Toyota Prius V (we're ignoring that Toyota's marketeers use a lower-case v for the name) is an inspired idea. It’s the first of three spin-offs of the iconic Prius hatchback to appear; the Prius Plug-In and the compact Prius C will also join the fleet in 2012. The next step, manufacturer reps report, is to establish a complete line of hybrids and a separate sub-brand under the Toyota umbrella.
Since its debut in 1997, the Toyota Prius has easily outdistanced all other hybrids in terms of sheer popularity, with worldwide sales since launch accounting for three million vehicles. While the perpetual critics of hybrids and electric vehicles will claim that this is a drop in the proverbial bucket in terms of total vehicle sales, it’s still better to be a drop in a bucket and a big fish in a little pond.
Sure, the Toyota Prius V is really just a thinly disguised minivan. But the plain fact is, some people need minivans and some of those desperate souls will want that minivan to be a hybrid. The Prius V offers 50 per cent more space behind the front seats than the hatch (a solid gain) and it comes close in terms of fuel efficiency — 4.6L/100 km in combined driving compared to 3.8L/100 km for the original. (These are US fuel cycle figures; Australian figures have yet to be confirmed ahead of its local launch in Q2 of this year.)
The strength of the vehicle, as expected, is the hybrid powertrain (shared with the regular Prius), which pairs a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a 60kW electric motor to produce a combined 100kW. This pairing is linked to a continuously variable transmission and managed via four different drive modes ranging from the extra-mild to the slightly spicy. In EV mode, the vehicle can run on electricity alone at urban speeds for about 2km, while power mode brings (a bit of) added punch.
Let’s be clear: The Prius V does not provide a thrilling driving experience. It’s not a terribly quick vehicle, nor is it particularly engaging; it does, however, offer reasonable steering feel, a smooth ride and acceptable handling.
As this Prius is larger than its immediate forebear, it goes without saying that it will likely carry more people (although still a five-seater like the Prius) and/or more cargo. In anticipation, the engineers at Toyota gave the vehicle a redesigned suspension system, as well as an innovative bit of tech called Pitch and Bounce Control. This system employs the torque of the hybrid powertrain to help control the balance of the vehicle under acceleration and its handling through the corners.
Much thought has gone into other aspects of the Prius V as well. High-tensile steel and aluminum is used in key areas to cut down on excess weight. And the optional panoramic moonroof is constructed of resin, which reduces weight by 38 per cent compared with a comparably sized glass roof. In the final analysis, the Prius V weighs 105kg more than the Prius — but considering the extra utility, this is a small price to pay.
During our test drive in Quebec, Canada — conducted in power mode most of the time, and with the accelerator well and truly engaged — the readout on the Prius V suggested an average fuel economy of 6.0L/100km. Fair enough.
But if there’s one area where the Prius V particularly disappoints, it’s the lack of cool factor. The Prius hatch has a definite geek-chic appeal to it; no, it doesn’t have the silhouette of a sports car, but it has enough of a wedge-shaped profile to suggest that aerodynamics were involved in the design. The Prius V also has a wedge-shaped profile, but because it’s larger in size, it just looks like a minivan that’s trying in vain to look cool.
The concern about cool factor extends to other parts of the vehicle as well. The resin sunroof, as interesting as that is, has meant that one of the most innovative features of the hatch — an optional solar panel sunroof that helps power the climate control system — has fallen by the wayside.
So, too, has the innovative touch tracer control system. A standard feature on the Prius hatch, this technology sees the driver activate various controls through thumb wheels mounted on the steering wheel. When the driver touches one of the sections of the wheel, a duplicate image of the control being activated is projected onto the windshield. This way, the controls can be operated without needing to lower the eyes.
It’s a very smart design, but it does take some getting used to; the word on the street is that the touch tracer control may have been considered too “youthful” a feature for the Prius V target market. Meaning: If you haven’t grown up with an iPod glued to your hand, touch tracer control is likely outside your comfort zone.
While the 2012 Toyota Prius V may not be quite as engaging as the Prius from a visual or technological perspective, it’s nevertheless an interesting new family vehicle. Even better, with a base price close to that of the original Prius in some markets — and even cheaper in some others — the Prius V represents real value in the hybrid segment.