We've already seen the 2012 Toyota Prius. The car that has become synonymous with hybrid vehicle hasn't changed much since we tested the 2010 model, not long after the third-generation debuted. There are a few styling and packaging tweaks, a few new bits of Entune-powered cabin tech, and (most notoriously or subtly, depending on whether you're looking for it) an ever so slightly higher sticker price. Aside from now being just one of four models to bear the "Prius" moniker, the "Classic Silver Metallic" 2012 Toyota Prius Four that rolled into the Car Tech Garage this week was just that: classic Prius.
It was gearing up to be a dull week of fuel economy testing, but then I had what at the moment seemed like a genius moment. Rather than glide around silently in the Prius' ECO mode to test Toyota's and the EPA's claim of 50 mpg combined, why not slap the Power Mode button at the beginning of every trip, drive it like a San Francisco cabbie (a large number of whom actually do drive Prii), and see if I could throw a monkey wrench in Toyota's fuel economy claim.
The kid gloves come off
In our previous reviews of Prius models, we've tested electric only range, we've tested theoretical maximum fuel economy. This time, I set about to test the Prius' performance when I simply stopped treating it like something special--when I stopped babying the gas pedal and just drove it like I actually needed to be somewhere on time.
At the beginning of every trip, I hit the Power button to activate the Prius and then I hit the Power Mode button. Power mode does nothing to actually affect the engine's behavior, but it does increase the sensitivity of the accelerator pedal, making it the most responsive and potentially least fuel-efficient setting. Rather than being met with a hesitant crawl away from the stop light, applying a reasonable amount of pedal pressure resulted in a reasonable amount of acceleration as the Prius' electric motor pulled the hatchback forward, joined just a second later by the gasoline engine.
All in, the Prius only outputs a maximum 134 hp from its Hybrid Synergy Drive power train. Ninety-eight of those ponies are provided by the 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine; the rest are supplied by the 80 hp (60 kW) electric motor. (And before you point out that those numbers don't add up, we know and so does Toyota. Gasoline and electric motors output power at different rates, and combining their power isn't as simple as adding A to B.) That's not a huge amount of total power, so it's no surprise that the Prius doesn't snap the neck, even in its Power Mode. However with some combination of 105 pound-feet of torque from the gasoline engine and 153 pound-feet from the electric motor (Toyota doesn't seem to publish a combined torque number), the Prius isn't particularly slow off of the line either.
If you can tear your eyes away from the plethora of displays and meters reporting back your instantaneous fuel economy and crank up the JBL Green Edge stereo to overcome the obnoxious noise made by the gasoline engine when it inevitably pops on -- it sounds more like a large vacuum cleaner than an internal combustion engine -- then the Prius is not a bad ride. It goes, stops, and corners in a perfectly acceptable manner. Sure, there's a bit of lagginess between a pedal press and the continuously variable transmission allowing the gasoline engine to wind up and supply power, but the electric motor is always there to fill that critical moment between needing power and getting it, so I'm not complaining.
The Fuel Economy Crucible
Then I started noticing something interesting. Despite my best attempts to drive like a douche bag, the 2012 Prius' trip computer was still consistently hanging out in the 48 to 50 mpg zone. And it didn't matter what I threw at it. Rush-hour traffic, extended highway cruising, city stop-and-go: the Prius just stared back blankly with 50 mpg.
I was beginning to feel defeated, when I decided to toss the Prius into what I like to call the Fuel Economy Crucible. This approximately 110-mile route involves leaving CNET's San Francisco offices at 4 p.m. on a weekday, crossing the Bay Bridge at the beginning of rush hour to eat at my favorite hamburger spot in Oakland (a closely guarded secret), then pushing down toward San Jose during the most congested hours of the day, and finally a hilly freeway blast back North to San Francisco. Most cars are showing their worst-case scenario fuel economy after this route, so I was sure that the Prius would finally buckle.
About 110 miles, one delicious hamburger, and 4 hours later, I was exhausted, but the Prius just stared back blankly, "Fuel economy for this trip: 56.6mpg." Foiled again!