2012 Toyota Prius Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
January 26, 2012

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.

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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.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Styling

The 2012 Toyota Prius continues the iconic shape of its predecessors, but it's futuristic rather than stylish.

Now in its third model year, the 2012 Toyota Prius carries on the recognizable shape of the world's most recognizable hybrid. A mild restyling of the front end this year freshens the headlamps and tail lamps, adds LED daytime running lights, and tweaks the shapes of the lower openings, but you'll have to look twice to see it.

The wedge shape, high tail with its small vertical second window for rearward visibility, and domed roofline are all in the service of aerodynamics. This third-generation Prius has one of the lowest drag coefficients of any car on the market, 0.25, which reduces wind resistance and helps the hybrid achieve its combined 50-mpg EPA rating. At this point, you either like the shape of the Prius or you don't--but you can't deny it's distinctive. That shape could only be a Prius, and you can spot the car from 100 yards.

Inside, the wide dash with its central, high-mounted digital information panel, "flying buttress" console, and joystick-like "shift" knob could also only be from the Prius. There's lots of hard plastic, but it's patterned and grained in such a way that it works well with the design theme. The storage bin underneath the swooping console, however, is awkward to get at, and for owners who their cars with the usual assortment of devices, sunglasses, bills and change, and other impedimenta, it's a case of style impeding substance. The available Remote Touch controller--rather like a mouse fixed in position on the console--controls icons on the navigation screen, but requires taking the driver's eyes off the road frequently to watch the screen. Beyond all that, the fabrics and materials of the Prius interior have the appearance of an inexpensive economy car.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Performance

If the gauge you watch most measures MPG, the 2012 Toyota Prius is the car for you. If you're more interested in sheer acceleration and speed, it'll get you there, but it's not much fun.

Compared to Priuses of early generations (2000-2009), the latest 2012 Prius provides a more responsive and more pleasant powertrain that still manages to get better fuel economy figures. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is paired with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which uses an electric motor-generator to supplement the engine power and power the car solely on electricity at low speeds and under light loads. Total maximum output power is 134 horsepower, but at steady speeds on the highway, the engine is relaxed and the traveling experience is pleasant.

The 2012 Toyota Prius will keep up with fast-moving traffic if you run it hard, but you'll hear frequent howling as the engine runs up to its maximum speed and stays there. The handling is fairly good despite squealing from the low-rolling resistance tires on hard cornering. That kind of treatment, however, drops the gas mileage from the high 40s to the mid- to high 30s. Driving carefully, planning ahead, and using the "Eco" mode exclusively, on the other hand, will let any driver exceed 50 mph in city driving. There's also an "EV" mode that directs the car to power itself solely from the battery pack until it's exhausted after 1 mile or so.

Noise and vibration from the engine are well suppressed under most circumstances, except for the hot-rodding noted above. As with most Toyotas, the electric power steering is limp, lifeless, and utterly devoid of road feel--though it works fine and lets drivers hustle the car among competitive urban traffic. The four-wheel disc brakes work fine, when they're used for harder braking (regenerative braking to recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck is the default). Pure acceleration times aren't swift, with 0-to-60-mph times of just under 10 seconds. But that's not really the point of the Prius. The whole hybrid driving experience is so different, with electronic control of virtually every aspect of the running gear, that you're much more likely to focus on increasing that fuel economy number than beating the adjacent car away from the stop light.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 Toyota Prius pulls off a tough trick: It is both versatile, spacious, and comfortable, and it delivers a real-world 50 mpg.

Inside the 2012 Toyota Prius hybrid, there's plenty of room for four adults. Five will fit in a pinch, but rear-seat passengers will have to stagger their shoulders. Slim front seatbacks provide good rear kneeroom, and there's more headroom in the rear than in front, thanks to the curved and domed roofline. Up front, it's not quite as pleasant; the "flying buttress" center console limits knee room, and the front seats could use a touch more padding. The driver's seat can be adjusted for height, though, which isn't the case in every car.

Otherwise, the five-door Prius hatchback is practical, versatile, and offers a space-efficient layout. You'd never know the battery pack was buried horizontally below the load deck, and storage cubbies, trays, and the like provide plenty of space for personal items--though the tray below the console is awkward to get to. The hard plastics look good, with textures and patterns you won't see in any other car, and they're carbon-neutral to boot.

Most of our editors noted the Prius's relative quietness under most driving conditions, with improved insulation and lower wind noise. That's shattered by engine noise when the car is driven hard, though This is a chronic fault, or feature, of Toyota's hybrids, which downsize the engine for maximum efficiency. The tradeoff, though, is that it has to work very hard to deliver the needed power on hard acceleration--and you hear it.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Safety

Safety isn't sacrificed to fuel efficiency in any way in the 2012 Toyota Prius, which offers more than its share of optional safety equipment.

Like most products from the Toyota colossus, the 2012 Toyota Prius comes with a strong body structure fitted with a full set of safety features. Those include seven airbags, of which the seventh is a knee bag for the driver. And stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, and newly mandated tire pressure monitors are all standard.

It's received respectable safety ratings, including a Top Safety Pick nod from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a mix of four- and five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with a five-star overall rating. The NHTSA has updated its crash procedures since it tested the Prius in 2010, however, so beware of comparing those ratings to those on newly redesigned vehicles.

Optional safety equipment includes radar-based adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, and the Toyota "Safety Connect" system. Among other functions, the Safety Connect software automatically alerts emergency responders in the event of a crash. Toyota also offers its Intelligent Parking Assist, which steers the car into a parallel-parking space with the driver providing only acceleration and braking.

Rear vision is decent if not spectacular in the 2012 Prius, though the available rearview camera is a desirable option. The rearward view in the central mirror is horizontally split by the joint between the two windows in the tailgate, which adds another piece of visual information to what ought to require no more than a quick glance.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Features

The 2012 Toyota Prius offers a number of appealing and high-tech features, many of them with a distinctly green tinge.

For 2012, Toyota has added a few standard features across the board to its Prius lineup, which comprises four models: Two, Three, Four, and Five. (The stripped-down Prius One is only offered to fleets, not to retail buyers.) And Prius prices have gone up across the board, with the base price of a Prius Two with no options now an even $24,000.

Power windows, cruise control, and an AM/FM/XM/CD player audio system are standard on all Prius models, and this year, Toyota includes a standard Bluetooth connection and a 6.1-inch display radio with USB and iPod connectivity.

The Prius Three trim level adds a rear-view backup camera, satellite navigation, and an audio system that includes Toyota’s Entune, a multimedia system with a suite of applications capable of connecting to Internet services like Bing and Pandora via a compatible smartphone. The Prius Four gets heated front seats and leather upholstery.

The top-of-the-line Prius Five includes larger 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, and options for a 7-inch touchscreen navigation system with split-screen capability, automatic on/off headlights, and an eight-way power adjustable drivers’ seat with power lumbar support.

Other equipment includes the Touch Tracer system that lets the driver swipe fingers over controls on the steering wheel that are reproduced on the dashboard Multi-Information Display gauge panel. That means drivers can keep their hands on the wheel while adjusting climate control or radio settings. A solar roof package embeds photovoltaic solar cells into a glass roof panel, generating enough solar electricity to power cabin-ventilation fans that pull hot air out of the car while it's parked, reducing the load on the air conditioning when it restarts. Remote starting for the air conditioner is also offered.

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2012 Toyota Prius

Fuel Economy

Quite simply, the 2012 Toyota Prius offers the highest gas mileage of any car on the U.S. market that doesn't plug into the wall. It's an unmatched combination of versatility, space, and fuel economy.

Plenty of so-called "hypermilers" compete to see who can travel the furthest on the least amount of gasoline, but for the rest of us, the 2012 Toyota Prius just delivers unparalleled fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2012 Prius at 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 50 mpg. That's the highest number you can buy this year in any car that doesn't plug in to recharge a battery pack.

Using the EV-only driving mode, accelerating lightly, and planning ahead can give you 60 mpg or better on level surfaces at slower speeds. Our experts once managed 69.5 mpg, though in more real-world mixed usage, we expect 45 to 50 mpg to be the norm. A heavy right foot or sustained high-speed travels may drop that number into the high 30s, since the Hybrid Synergy Drive system is at its most effective in stop-and-go urban and suburban traffic where the engine can shut off frequently. But if you do a lot of city driving, a sustained 50 mpg or better is entirely possible. Just ask the taxi drivers who relish the low operating costs of their Prius cabs.

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February 20, 2016
2012 Toyota Prius 5-Door HB One (Natl)

Great room, excellent mph, all around the best hybrid around.

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I'm a new Prius owner and being 6'3 I found that it is roomy in the front as well as the front. Only had for a week and have been averaging 48 mpg in town. Overall I am pleased with our purchase the only... + More »
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October 16, 2015
2012 Toyota Prius 5-Door HB Three (SE)

All I enjoy in a car beautifully engineered!

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2012 Prius is number three. ........waiting for number 4 ..... 2016 with full TSS. What more can one say?
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September 18, 2015
2012 Toyota Prius 5-Door HB Four (SE)

Best all around car I have ever owned

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Excellent all around vehicle,very trouble free. Will definitely buy another one
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April 20, 2015
For 2012 Toyota Prius

Excellent car, our second Prius

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Pleasure to drive. Bought it after many years and 250,000 km without any problems without previous Prius. Living off road in a hilly rural area we use our Prius for long drives where comfort and fuel... + More »
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Styling 6
Performance 5
Comfort & Quality 8
Safety 9
Features 10
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