Toyota is predicting it will sell more than a million hybrids in 2012, a milestone that will be helped by an expansion of its most famous petrol-electric range that includes the Toyota Prius V.
It took the Japanese brand 15 years to offer its first Prius variant – the Toyota Prius city car released in Australia two months ago – but the second spin-off is already here.
Where the C in Prius C stood for Compact/City/Clever, the V in Prius V simply stands for versatility.
That’s backed by more luggage space and seating for up to seven occupants.
To accommodate the extra capacity for more bags and two more people, the Toyota Prius V, at 4.62 metres, is 135mm longer than the regular Prius – with 80mm of that sandwiched in between the front and rear axles and the rest taken up by extended front and rear overhangs.
The Prius V also stands 110mm taller than the Prius – helping to provide more headroom in the cabin: 25mm extra up front, 45mm extra in the second row, with space also created for the third row that would otherwise be cramped by the tradtional tapering roofline of the family Prius design.
Toyota says the Prius V has 64 different seating combinations, but we focused on the two key arrangements: all seats in use and five seats with larger boot.
Starting at the back, the third row offers rear quarter windows to help reduce the claustrophobic effect, is good for headroom but incredibly cramped for legroom if anyone’s sitting in the middle row. Even kids would be hoping friends or members of the family sitting ahead of them aren’t too tall.
The second row of seats do slide fore/aft individually by up to 18cm at least, which helps to balance the needs of those occupants behind the front seats. The middle row otherwise offers good legroom if the bench – comprising three individual, reclineable seats – is pushed most of the way back.
The second row seats flip and slide forward to allow access to the third row, though otherwise there are no innovative seating-manipulation touches seen in vehicles such as the Mazda CX-5 or Honda Jazz.
Despite the electric focus of the Toyota Prius V there are no electronic button releases for any of the seats. The rear seats simply lift out of the floor via pull straps, reducing boot space from 485 litres to 180.
Fold all middle and back row seats and the Prius V has the kind of cargo-carrying volume Toyota says could make it a potential light delivery van.
Toyota, in fact, says the Prius V is a rival for a broad range of vehicles, saying its wagon-cum-people-mover will compete with the likes of the Honda Odyssey people-mover, Skoda Yeti compact SUV, Mazda6 wagon, Nissan Dualis+2 and Peugeot 508 Tourer.
The third row forced Toyota to find a new position for the battery pack that powers the hybrid system’s electric motor.
In the regular Prius the heavier, bulkier nickel-metal-hydride battery is positioned at the rear, but for the Prius V Toyota switched to a lithium-ion battery that gets sandwiched between the front seats underneath the centre console.
Despite being half the size of the normal Prius’s battery (and 7kg lighter), it delivers the same performance.
Otherwise the Toyota Prius V employs the same major componentry as the Prius, with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine combining with an electronic motor for a combined power output of 100kW.
So again you press a button to start the Prius V, to be met only with a bank of multi-coloured digital displays.
Release the foot-operated parking brake that contradicts the sophisticated approach of the Prius V, press the accelerator gently and you’re away silently.
It’s possible to remain in electric-only mode on a light throttle for a couple of kilometres, though again the slightest gradient or extra squeeze of the throttle will bring the petrol engine (seamlessly) into play.
This will happen even if you select the vehicle’s EV (electric vehicle) mode.
That mode dulls throttle response to help the driver avoid firing up the engine, though both EV and Normal modes are frustrating in this respect.
We chose to drive in Power mode for the majority of our drive, so there was adequate response that is beneficial in all types of driving – especially the city where making quick manoevres is desirable.
Toyota says the Prius and Prius V have comparable performance – 0-100km/h in about 11 seconds – with the seven-seater’s 135kg of extra mass compensated for with a shorter final drive ratio.
A seat-of-the-pants feel suggests the Prius V may be a tad slower, and you can expect to be making heavy use of the petrol engine in tandem with the electric motor if the vehicle is at full capacity in terms of occupants.
There’s a greater effect on fuel consumption and emissions, though while the Prius V is inferior to the Prius in this respect you won’t find another seven-seater on the market offering official fuel efficiency of 4.4 litres per 100km and CO2 output of 101 grams per kilometre.
We averaged between 4.5 and 5.1L/100km on a drive that incorporated city, town, country and freeway roads.
And with just two aboard, performance is more than adequate, while the dreaded drone of the hybrid system’s continuously variable auto (CVT) seems more restrained in the V than the regular Prius.
Tyre and wind noise become progressively louder, however, as your seating position moves from front to middle to rear.
Wind noise from the tailgate, particularly, makes it difficult for third-row passengers to hear those in the front seats.
Although the Prius V is more than just a stretched Prius, the driving experience is similar. There’s the familiar wooden and slightly grabby brake pedal and the familiar firmness to the underpinnings that struggle to deliver a compliant ride on roads that are anything less than smooth.
The Toyota Prius V won’t scare you in corners but neither will it excite you like a Honda Odyssey people-mover.
But it is cheaper. At $35,990, the Prius V carries just a $2000 premium over the normal Prius to make it one of the most affordable seven-seaters available.
An i-Tech variant will also be offered from the end of the year. Toyota isn’t yet revealing pricing for that, but it asks another $12,000 on the normal Prius in return for additional features such as leather seats, pre-crash safety system and satellite navigation.
The base Toyota Prius V still comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights, touchscreen, hill-start assist and reverse-view camera. Stability control and seven airbags are also standard, the body is 18 per cent stiffer than the Prius's, and Toyota says it anticipates a five-star independent crash rating from NCAP.
There’s also a head-up display that includes ‘touch trace’, where the projected graphic on the windscreen responds to the respective steering wheel buttons the drive presses – such as display and temp controls.
That’s the only display ahead of the driver, as all other information – of which there is a lot - is presented in a wide, multicolour screen embedded in the middle of the dash.
Parents, though, will appreciate the seatbelt warning lights that will alert them to any of the occupants in the five seats behind them not being strapped in.
The central display is about the only colourful aspect of an interior that, if the Toyota Prius V is positioned as a 21st-century motor vehicle, suggests the future is bleak with its dreary-grey décor.
It also suggests manufacturers of hard plastics will be doing better business than those producing the softer variety.
But overall, for families looking for a fuel efficient, practical and, yes, versatile seven-seater, the Toyota Prius V is here and now.