By Kelsey Mays
In its 11-year U.S. tenure, the venerable Prius has emerged as an icon of all things flower-friendly, outselling every other hybrid on the market -- combined. Toyota's decision to cash in on that popularity by expanding the Prius into a collection of hybrids makes as much sense as my decision to add milk to my cereal this morning. I take no issue with Toyota's move; it's the execution I question. The first of this cadre, dubbed Prius V (that's "vee" for "versatility," not "five"), delivers driving characteristics and passenger room similar to the original Prius, which is already competent in both areas. In short, Toyota's spinoff may just have hit too close to the original.
The Prius V is longer, wider and taller. That means more room, but it also means an EPA-estimated 42 mpg in the city, so make sure you need the extra space. If you don't, there's little reason to choose the V over the cheaper, 50-mpg Prius.
The Prius V hits dealerships this fall, and I tested a range of models. The V's numeric trims -- Two, Three and (bizarrely) Five -- roughly mirror those of the Prius. (Toyota wisely began spelling the trim names out this year; it used to designate them II, III, IV and V, but a Prius V V would have singlehandedly secured Toyota the award for Worst Trim Name.)
Going and stopping
The Prius V retains most of the Prius' hardware. That makes for a similar driving experience, complete with four driving modes; at the extremes, those modes drag out the drivetrain's electric-only propulsion range at one end and maximize acceleration at the other. Even in its most efficient mode, the 134-horsepower drivetrain delivers full power if you stand on the gas pedal, which translates to adequate acceleration. I had to leave bigger gaps before pulling into traffic, but with two adults on board the V had little trouble maintaining 70 mph even on inclines.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with a regenerative function are standard. As in most hybrids, the pedal isn't very linear; it's brick-like at first, followed by a few inches of vague response, then finally biting down during the last inch or so. Smooth stops take some practice.
Toyota expects gas mileage to be 42 mpg overall in combined city/highway driving. In a 51.5-mile drive at mostly highway speeds, another driver and I averaged 43 mpg, according to the car's trip computer. That's well short of the regular Prius' 50-mpg combined rating, but it handily beats fuel-efficient haulers like the front-drive Ford Escape Hybrid (32 mpg) and the diesel Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI (33 mpg with an automatic) -- a testament to how far ahead of the pack the Prius is.
Ride and handling
The Prius has never been fun to drive, and the V doesn't change that. Its electric power steering delivers artificial sensations at low speeds and becomes a soupy mess going into turns. But the car hunkers down on longer curves, resisting body roll well and delivering better midcorner steering corrections than the initial slop would have you expect. Back on the highway, the car tracks well; you don't need to make many corrections to stay on course.
A Toyota engineer said the Prius V was tuned to feel softer than the Prius, but I didn't notice many differences in ride comfort; both cars still ride a bit firm. There's less wind and suspension noise inside the V, though, which is an issue in the Prius. The differences are more incremental than major, but I'll take whatever improvement I can get.
Know how dips and rises in the road can make a car pitch forward or squat back? Toyota says its new Pitch and Bounce Control modifies power a smidge to counteract that. The concept strikes me as over the top: A well-engineered suspension -- which, on paper, the Prius V's low-tech torsion-beam rear isn't -- shouldn't need an extra feature to maintain a flat ride. Either way, Pitch and Bounce Control helps more on interstates than it does on back roads. Barreling down San Francisco's I-280 -- a freeway my co-driver, who lives in the area, noted is quite bumpy -- the Prius V stayed level. Conversely, on a pitchy two-lane highway near the coast, Pitch and Bounce called in sick. The Prius V was all over the place.
Bigger, outside and in
The Prius V's extended overhangs and slightly higher stance don't lend it as sleek a profile as the Prius, but there are enough similarities -- from the headlights to the windows -- that the cars look like they fell from the same tree. The Prius V's wheelbase is 3 inches longer, and overall length has increased 6 inches. Those changes don't increase passenger volume much (less than 4 percent), but cargo volume gets a major bump. The Prius V has 34.3 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, albeit a slightly higher load floor. Toyota says that figure beats more than 80 percent of small SUVs and crossovers on the road. Fold the seats down, and the Prius V offers 67.3 cubic feet of maximum volume. It also has a standard fold-flat front passenger seat to accommodate long, narrow items.
The regular Prius doesn't beg for more cabin room; both rows fit all but the tallest adults. The Prius V's cabin is a bit wider up front and does away with the regular model's flow-through center console, leaving more room alongside your knees. Visibility is better thanks to larger rear-quarter windows and a proper rear window that isn't bisected by a crossbar. Toyota says the deep center console can fit 23 CD cases. In other news, my cubicle has desk space for a typewriter, two slide rules and a Victrola.
Seating capacity maxes out at five. Toyota offers a Lilliputian third row for the Prius V in Japan -- where it's known as the Prius Alpha -- but we won't get it here, officials said.
The front seats have plenty of backrest cushioning and strong lateral and thigh support. Kudos, Toyota. The backseat adjusts 7.1 inches forward and backward in a 60/40 split; each side also reclines to a maximum 45-degree tilt. Rear passengers will appreciate the adjustability and flat floor; the regular Prius' rear seats are fixed. Like in the Prius, legroom back there is good, and thanks to the V's upright roofline, headroom is better. Some of that, however, comes at the expense of seat height: Where the Prius' backseat sits comfortably high off the floor, the V's is too low. Some adults may find their knees uncomfortably elevated.
Sporting a unique design, the Prius V's dash lacks some of the aesthetic cohesion of the Prius. Materials quality has improved in some areas, such as padding along the doors and on certain portions of the dash, but I wish Toyota had kept the Prius' textured center controls; the ones in the V are a flatter black. Single-zone automatic climate control is standard, and it uses an electric air-conditioning compressor that can operate whether or not the engine is running. Select the drivetrain's Eco mode, and it turns down the air conditioning to conserve power. In the past, I've found that air-conditioning systems like that don't always keep up with summer temperatures. The Prius V handled the 60-degree temps during my drive well enough, but if you drive one on a hot day, click the link at the bottom of this review to shoot me an email about your experience.
A standard 6.1-inch dashboard display shows everything from radio stations to an optional navigation system that's a little prone to lag. Toyota's app-enabling Entune system, which I detailed at January's Detroit auto show, is also optional. Available on the Prius V Five, a higher-resolution 7.0-inch display has more robust Entune and navigation capabilities.
Safety and features
The Prius V has yet to be crash-tested. Standard safety features include rollover-sensing side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system, antilock brakes, and a brake override system to mitigate unintended acceleration. Coupled with the optional adaptive cruise control, the Prius V's Pre-Collision System warns the driver, tightens seat belts and can even apply the brakes if the sensors detect a potential collision. As will soon be required of electric vehicles and hybrids, the Prius V emits an artificial sound at low speeds to warn pedestrians of its presence.
Pricing won't be available until closer to the Prius' launch, but Toyota division president Bob Carter said he expects the price to be "a little higher than the current Prius' transaction price." That's around $25,000, another Toyota official told me, so the Prius V could very well start anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars above that. That starting cost would get you a Prius V Two, which comes standard with a keyless access system and push-button start, an iPod/USB-compatible stereo, automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels and a backup camera.
Move up to the Three and Five, and you can get Entune, one of two navigation systems, heated faux-leather seats, a panoramic transparent roof and a JBL stereo. Like the Prius, the Prius V will offer adaptive cruise control, a self-parking system and Toyota's Safety Connect telematics service, similar to GM's OnStar.
Prius V in the market
Toyota expects the Prius V to eventually account for 10 to 20 percent of the total Prius collection's sales -- a group that "in many ways will define our future," Carter said.
That sounds about right. Apart from giving you more cargo space, the Prius V doesn't do a whole lot that the Prius didn't, and the difference between the two essentially amounts to being able to go hog wild at Costco without folding the rear seats down. For that, the Prius V loses 8 mpg and could cost well over $2,000 more. The V represents a standout choice for fuel efficiency if you need the extra room -- just be sure you do.
Starting MSRP n/a
EPA Fuel Economy:
New or Notable
* All-new Prius sibling
* 59 percent more rear cargo room
* Hybrid four-cylinder drivetrain
* Seats five
* 40 mpg overall
What We Like
* Front-seat comfort
* Fuel efficiency
* Roomy cabin
* Cargo area
* Unobstructed rear window
What We Don't
* Brake-pedal feel
* Limited added appeal vs. Prius
* Modest acceleration
* Convoluted trim names
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