- Best gas mileage of any car
- Capacious cabin
- Useful hatchback utility
- Lifeless driving experience
- Flying-buttress console limits knee room
- Hard plastics hardly luxurious
The 2012 Toyota Prius remains the highest-mileage car offered in the U.S., and it's a practical and capacious mid-size hatchback with room for five
For more than a decade, the Toyota Prius has been the public face of hybrid cars. A new, third-generation model was completely redesigned for 2010 to offer more features and even higher gas mileage. Now, for 2012, the Prius name expands beyond the iconic hatchback to include two new models.
The 2012 Toyota Prius hatchback hardly meddles with the pattern established in 2004: It's a five-door hatchback with a high tail and a split rear window. It's the most aerodynamic shape for a five-passenger mid-size car, and the Prius has one of the lowest drag coefficients of any car on the market--all in the service of fuel economy, which the EPA rates at a combined 50 mpg.
Inside, the styling is Space Age, complete with a "flying buttress" console that offers storage space underneath, though it can be hard to get to. The dashboard splits information into two areas: an Information Center mounted high and close to the windshield base, and more conventional instruments behind the wheel closer to the driver. Plastic surfaces are mostly hard, but the effect is distinctive if hardly luxurious.
The 1.8-liter engine is paired with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which uses a pair of motor-generators that can power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph), add torque to supplement the engine power, and recharge the battery pack during engine overrun or braking. The combined output of the engine and hybrid system is 134 horsepower.
The 2012 Toyota Prius hardly handles in a way to gladden the hearts of sports-car drivers. The 0-to-60-mph time is just under 10 seconds, and the continuously variable nature of the hybrid system means engine noise isn't proportional to road speed--which can take some getting used to for new drivers. The electric power steering is lifeless and numb (as it seems to be on all Toyota models that use it), but it responds fine and the car gets itself around corners adequately. The blending of regenerative braking with the all-disc friction brakes is excellent, and Toyota's had longer experience than any other maker in refining it.
With the interior volume of a mid-size car, the Toyota Prius hatchback offers plenty of space for four adults, or five if the back-seat passengers are willing to stagger their shoulders. Rear-seat legroom benefits from hollowed-out front seatbacks, but in front, the seat padding is skimpy and the hard-plastic center console cuts into knee room for taller drivers.
The 2012 Toyota Prius fits seven airbags as standard, along with the usual array of anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Radar-based adaptive cruise control, a rear-view camera, and a lane-departure warning system are all optional, as is a "Safety Connect" system to alert first responders after a crash. The much-publicized Intelligent Parking Assist, which controls the steering wheel to help parallel-park a Prius using the car's cameras--though the driver must brake--is a step in the right direction, though Ford's system is better.
For 2012, the Prius five-door comes in four trim levels: Two, Three, Four, and Five. There's an ultra-stripped-down base-level Prius One, but it's only for fleet purchase, and civilians can't buy it. The lowest-level Two and Three models are priced in the low twenties, but the highest-spec trim levels--with either the Technology Package or the first-in-your-neighborhood solar moonroof panel, which runs a small ventilation fan to cool the cockpit when the Prius is parked--will go upwards of $30,000.
Notable features include the Touch Tracer steering-wheel controls, which let drivers swipe and navigate through menus displayed in the Information Display, keeping their eyes closer to the road ahead than if they focus on the close-in cluster. Remote air conditioning, LED headlamps, Bluetooth, and a navigation system are also available.
The biggest Prius news for 2012 is the addition of two new models. The first is the 2012 Toyota Prius V wagon, which offers far more load space, all the traditional Prius virtues, and a combined EPA gas-mileage rating of 42 mpg. After a series of delays due to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it went on sale late in 2011.
Coming in the early part of 2012 is the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, the first mass-market Toyota to plug into the electric grid to recharge its battery pack. It's virtually identical to the Prius five-door hatchback on the outside, but its battery pack holds three times as much energy, and plugging it in to recharge gives it 8 to 13 miles of all-electric range against the 1 or 2 miles provided by the standard model. Note, however, that unlike the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, the electric range may not be continuous--the plug-in Prius will switch on its engine at any point it needs more power than the batteries can deliver. The EPA hasn't yet rated the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and like all blended plug-in hybrids, its real-world mileage will depend entirely on how much it's used in all-electric mode.