The 2012 Toyota Prius v, the minivan version of the Prius hatchback, serves as an excellent object lesson in the effects of drag on fuel economy. The Prius v, with its enhanced cargo space, weighs only 200 pounds more than the hatchback, but the drag coefficient changes from .25 to .29. And that means the Prius v ends up with 10 mpg less in fuel economy than its hatchback counterpart, even while using the same engine and hybrid system.
Maybe Toyota did not intend the Prius v to be a physics lesson, but the Prius has always appealed to the scientifically minded. Engineers would buy the car just for the power flow animation, which shows in real time when the engine or electric motor is driving the front wheels. Hypermilers learned just how to optimize fuel economy, while a cottage industry of modders made it possible to recharge the battery from the grid.
But the fact that the Prius v does not equal its sibling's fuel economy is no failure, as the car still averages over 40 mpg in real-world driving. And that is impressive when it can also seat five comfortably and fit a decent amount of cargo. Many nonhybrid cars boast 40 mpg on the highway these days, but that is not their average fuel economy and they don't have as much cabin space as the Prius v.
Placed side by side, the Prius v does not look much bigger than the Prius hatchback. Its roofline holds its height to the back of the car, which is where the extra cargo space comes in. But Toyota managed to create a more airy feeling in the cabin. A freestanding center console made the Prius v feel like a minivan. I wanted to take the very cushiony seats with me and install them in my living room.
CNET's review car was loaded, the top Five trim with the Advanced Technology package. Over the front and rear seats it had glass roof panes that unfortunately did not open. Options included adaptive cruise control and automatic parking. With the former, I drove for miles down the freeway without the need to touch gas pedal or brake, just steering and enjoying the scenery.
The automatic parking was not nearly as successful. This is the same system Toyota originally launched in the Lexus LS 460. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now. Each time I tried it, the parking frame overlaid on the rearview camera showed red, no matter how much I tried to adjust it. It needs to turn blue for the system to work. Ford deployed a much better version of this system, which requires no onscreen tinkering, in the Focus.
Using the same 1.8-liter engine with electric motor assist as the hatchback, the Prius v did not feel underpowered. The drive systems in each car produce a net 134 horsepower, and Toyota notes a 0-to-60-mph time of 10.4 seconds, almost a second slower than the hatchback. Most of my starts were on the slow side, the hybrid system encouraging moderate driving.
But when faced with a series of steep hills in San Francisco or coastal mountains immediately to the south, I put it in power mode and the increased throttle sensitivity whipped up all its horses with a half push on the accelerator. It is no muscle car, but the readiness of the power inspired confidence. Jamming down the accelerator for a passing maneuver made the engine emit an eerie moan, in counterpoint to the pleasant turbine whir of the generator when braking.
The power mode, activated from a button on the console, made a big performance difference, but it was less so for the Eco mode. The throttle already felt very detuned in normal drive mode, and Eco did not make it much worse. However, I could definitely feel the air from the climate control system go from gust to breath when I hit the Eco button.
There is also a button for EV mode, but as soon as the car got to 30 mph, it deactivated of its own accord. It is kind of like a more innocuous version of the bus from the movie "Speed." What impressed me was the Prius v's ability to shut down its engine at higher speeds. While cruising at 40 mph, the car would switch to electric drive as long as I went extremely light on the accelerator.
The ride quality of the Prius v is similar to that of the hatchback Prius. I wouldn't call it bad, but it felt like the car was designed more to optimize efficiency than to coddle the passengers. I wouldn't want to drive it over 20 miles of bad road, but it is perfectly suitable for the typical byways of city and suburb.
Like the 2012 Toyota Camry I reviewed recently, the Prius v gets JBL's new GreenEdge audio system. Designed for efficiency, this system is supposed to use less power but still deliver robust sound, making it more appropriate for the Prius v than for the Camry. But the version in the Prius v only has eight speakers, two less than in the Camry.