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2012 Toyota Prius v. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Toyota Prius v. (Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

Toyota finally gets it right Add to ...

Here’s the Prius hybrid that Toyota should have launched in the first place – at least in Canada. It’s the Prius v – a roomy, new, station wagon version of the car that started the hybrid movement. It’s like the best-selling Matrix but as a hybrid.

Everyone gives Toyota credit for getting into hybrids in a big way first and for developing some brilliant technology along the way. The problem is that not many people bought the things. In Canada, after 11 years, Toyota has sold a grand total of 23,000 Prius models, many with $2,500 discounts.

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Yes, in 2000, people didn’t know what a hybrid was and whether or not an extension cord would have to trail the vehicle wherever it went. Now everybody gets it.

A hybrid combines as little gas engine as possible with a braking system that generates electricity rather than just heat. That’s it. Okay, there are a bunch of computers keeping track of it all but the package has proven itself with bullet-proof reliability. Just ask any of the hundreds and hundreds of Vancouver taxi drivers who run them.

So why only 23,000 sold, including the taxis, in more than a decade?

It could be they went with the wrong car and, as usual, you can blame the Americans for the blunder. Here are some interesting numbers. The Toyota Corolla is the best-selling car of all time with more than 36 million peddled around the world. The Matrix is the hatchback/station wagon version of the Corolla and in the last 10 years 45 per cent of Canadian “Corolla” buyers paid more for the Matrix versus only 14 per cent of the U.S. buyers. Anything with a hatchback is perceived as “cheap import car” in the States and they stay away in droves – thus missing out on a whole fleet of versatile, fuel-efficient vehicles.

Now Toyota is finally hitting the sweet spot in the Canadian market with the Prius v with a five-passenger, four-door hatchback with a little 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine and two electric motors. This is the perfect size and configuration for the legendary soccer mom who wants to haul the kids and demonstrate some green cred. Remember, in the last decade, a truly pathetic 23,000 Prius models sold in Canada versus 182,000 Matrixs.

After a decade of being told what to do by the Americans, Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty was bubbling with excitement to announce that “the Prius v will be the hybrid to break through to the mainstream mass market in Canada.” He’s finally got his hatchback wagon.

The main difference between the Prius v and the original Prius is that it’s bigger and a little heavier. But it is jammed with every bit of technology that Toyota engineers could dream up.

There’s one gizmo called tilt, rattle and roll control – or something like that – which senses when the nose is moving up or down. To smooth things out it either adds or reduces the slightest amount of power from the electric motors driving the vehicle up front for a millisecond or two. Don’t ask me how it does this, but it does actually smooth out the ride on a fairly tall, tippy car.

There’s more, including lightweight materials too numerous to mention and, at the top end, a fancy entertainment and voice-activated navigation system, which produced hilarious results during a test drive. If you buy it don’t throw away your maps.

Power? Not so much. The engine sounds like it’s going to throw a piston if you accelerate going up steep hills. So don’t accelerate. You’re supposed to be green. All in, Toyota says it’ll give you 4.6 litres/100 km combined once all the government tests are done.

But back to the “roominess” question; Toyota claims the Prius v has more cargo space than 80 per cent of the small crossover/station wagons that are so popular today. The back seats fold down in a snap. In fact, it has almost exactly the same cargo space as a larger Chevrolet Equinox or Ford Escape.

So is this the hybrid that will finally achieve “the breakthrough to mainstream mass market” that Beatty talks about?

It has a chance. It’s a very pleasing, useful vehicle that comes with a dose of moral superiority attached. I’m a diesel fan and prefer the way they perform on the highway while getting at least the same fuel economy. But the Prius beats my diesel hands down in the carbon-emitting category. There goes my moral superiority.

All this doesn’t come cheap; $27,200, up to $36,875. The good old Matrix is 10 grand less and you’ll probably never make up the difference in fuel savings alone. But think of the pleasure you’ll get looking down your nose at all those gas guzzlers and carbon emitters (like mine) out there.

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