Rating: 8.5
Bottom Line:
The 2012 Toyota Prius V combines the fuel efficiency of the standard Prius with the interior space of a station wagon or compact SUV. Like the Prius hatchback, the V’s ride and handling characteristics aren’t too much of a compromise. It should catch on as a useful and efficient family hauler.
  • Impressive fuel economy
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Plenty of room for people and cargo
  • Leisurely acceleration
  • Plasticky interior
  • Far from sporty

No car has caught on with earth-loving Americans like the Toyota Prius. Far and away the best-selling hybrid, the Prius is in fact one of the better-selling cars on the market. For 2012, Toyota is taking advantage of that fact by turning the Prius lineup into its own green-oriented subbrand.

The first vehicle in the new range is the Prius V, a bigger vehicle with a wagon body style. With the room of a small SUV and uncompromised fuel efficiency, the Prius V is actually a better choice for families than its hatchback sibling.

Model Lineup
The 2012 Toyota Prius V comes in three trim levels: Two, Three and Five. The Prius V Two base trim is a bit above basic, with features such as power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, Display Audio 6.1-inch touch screen, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, USB port, auxiliary input jack, rearview camera, Bluetooth hands-free cellphone link, and P205/60R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.

The Prius V Three adds a navigation system, XM satellite radio, HD radio with iTunes tagging, and Toyota's new Entune entertainment system. The Prius V Five comes with SofTex faux-leather upholstery, heated front seats, automatic LED headlights with auto-leveling, fog lamps, auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage door opener and P225/55R17 tires on alloy wheels.

An available technology package includes a 7-inch touch screen with a hard-drive navigation system, eight JBL GreenEdge speakers, a text-to-voice feature with customizable text responses, and SiriusXM Data with traffic, weather, fuel pricing, sports and stock information. Other options include a Panoramic View sunroof, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System, and Advanced Parking Guidance System.

Under the Hood
Like the standard Prius, the Prius V is powered by Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. It uses a 1.8-liter 98-horsepower 4-cylinder engine aided by a two electric motors. A 42-kilowatt (56-horsepower) motor acts as a generator and a second 60-kilowatt (80-horsepower) electric motor supplies motive power. The nickel-metal hydride battery puts out a peak 36 horsepower. Toyota says total output is 134 horsepower. The power is sent through a continuously variable automatic transmission.

While the drive system is the same, the gearing isn't. The Prius V has a lower gearing ratio that helps provide more low-end punch to offset its extra weight.

Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings are impressive. The 2012 Toyota Prius V is EPA-rated at 44 mpg city/40 mpg highway. Those ratings are second only to the standard Prius' 51/48 mpg among current hybrids.

Inner Space
The main story of the Prius V's cabin is the extra space. While Toyota doesn't call it a wagon, that's what it really is, and as such it has lots of room. With the second-row seats up, there is a handy 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space; you can also slide the rear seat forward to expand that to 40.3 cubic feet. Fold those seats down, and total capacity expands to 67.3 cubic feet, which is actually four more cubic feet than a Chevrolet Equinox. Unfortunately, the rear seats can only be folded from the side, not the rear.

The second-row seat has plenty of room for three passengers, with the added bonus that it reclines for improved long-trip comfort. Room up front is quite good, and a standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps drivers find a comfortable, though somewhat upright seating position.

Up front, the materials are uninspired. The dash is largely plastic, and the few soft-touch surfaces are cloth instead of a richer, padded vinyl-like material.

Drivers can take in plenty of information. A multi-information display below the windshield shows the trip odometer, gear selection, battery charge, and a graph of real-time driving efficiency. On the center screen, drivers can view an energy-monitor screen that shows the power flow between the engine, battery and electric motors, and a trip-information screen that shows fuel economy in one-minute increments, as well as the amount of energy regenerated.

The Prius V also marks the debut of Toyota's Entune, a multimedia system that pairs with your smartphone to provide access to mobile apps. Available apps consist of music streaming through Pandora and iheartradio, Bing search with navigation, OpenTable dining reservations, movietickets.com, and information that previously had been offered by satellite services, including information on stocks, sports scores, fuel pricing and locations, and live weather and traffic. All of these features are presented on the dashboard screen, and are easy to find and use, provided you have the right phone.

On the Road
The Prius V driving experience is similar to the Prius hatchback, which is to say comfortable and somewhat boring. The ride is almost luxury-car smooth, though the handling is rather dull. The car leans in turns, though not excessively. We drove it on twisty roads in and around Half Moon Bay, Calif., and found it to be surprisingly controlled, though far from sporty. The steering is a bit slow and has little feel. The brakes are linear and progressive, not grabby as in many other hybrids.

More important than the road manners, though, is the Prius V's fuel economy. Though longer and heavier than the standard Prius, the V is almost as efficient. With a combined EPA rating of 42 mpg, the V requires just 0.4 more gallons of gas than the Prius hatchback to travel 100 miles.

Power is also acceptable. Thanks to the lower gearing ratio, the Prius V feels just as strong, if not stronger, from a stop than its little brother. The electric motors help immediate torque from a stoplight, but power at higher speeds is lacking, leading to the leisurely 10.4-second zero-to-60 mph time. Passing is a chore, but it can be done with enough room. The throttle becomes more responsive when drivers choose the PWR mode, but it's very dull in ECO mode. There is also an EV mode that uses electric power alone, up to 25 mph and one mile. The EV mode is just a gimmick. It just drains the battery without improving fuel economy. Careful drivers can also get the Prius V to drive on electricity alone up to 25 or 30 mph by going light on the throttle.

Right for You?
The 2012 Toyota Prius V expands on the strengths of the Prius hatchback by offering even more room for active families. The space makes it a fine alternative to an SUV or crossover, with the added bonus of outstanding fuel economy. Buyers looking for something sporty, fast or simply more butch will want to consider a sport wagon, SUV or crossover.

Toyota isn't calling the Prius V a station wagon, but that's what it really is. Americans have shied away from wagons for decades now, which could mean that the Prius V will attract only limited sales. However, it doesn't look like a traditional wagon, and the unique Prius character might garner sales just like the hatchback.

(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Toyota provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.