Has the Prius been a success for Toyota?
Consider these numbers. Since its introduction, 15 years ago, it has been purchased by more than three million buyers, worldwide, and 23,000 of those have been in Canada. Its Hybrid Synergy Drive system has been used throughout the Toyota/Lexus lineup and has also been adopted, under patent, by other manufacturers. The Prius accounts for more than 70 per cent of all hybrid sales for the Japanese company, and is a staple in many taxi fleets across the country. You might say that things have worked out nicely.
And, in the car industry, success is self-perpetuating. If it worked once, it’ll probably work again. That could explain why Toyota recently unveiled an entry-level Prius – the C – at this year’s Detroit auto show, and last fall, introduced the V, which is the minivan of the series.
Let’s be clear though. This is not a minivan by any stretch of the imagination, but it does feature more interior storage room than the garden-variety sedan model. Fold down the 60/40 back seats and you’ll reveal 1,904 litres of cargo area. This is almost half again as much as the Prius sedan. And elbow room for back-seat passengers has apparently been increased by 54 per cent as well. So, you can legitimately carry five passengers without them sitting in each others laps. Taxi drivers will no doubt love this one.
Under the hood is Toyota’s familiar Hybrid Synergy Drive arrangement. In this instance, it consists of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine mated to an 80 horsepower – or 60 kilowatt – electric motor with electrical juice supplied by a 650-watt nickel metal hydride battery pack. This drivetrain is virtually identical to that found in the sedan, but features enhanced cooling for the batteries, which are located under the back seat.
So what’s it like to drive? Pretty boring, actually. Do not expect any kind of performance snap with this one, because the emphasis is on thrift and practicality. Yes, there are four drivetrain settings to choose from: standard, Eco, EV, and Power, but no matter which you choose, you’re not going to set the roads on fire.
The gas engine in the Prius is of the Atkinson cycle variety, which means the valves stay open a titch longer to maximize combustion efficiency, and the price you pay is worse than mediocre performance, because on top of that, the transmission is a CVT, which simply does not transmit any kind of driving enjoyment.
I left my tester in the standard setting most of the time, mainly because in Eco mode, for example, the engine management system “prioritizes” fuel economy, which translates into seriously lethargic performance. EV mode, which is pure battery power, will stay in place until around 40 km/h, so for parking lot trolling and so on, it’s fine, but otherwise is, quite frankly, frustrating. Like it or lump it, traffic moves along fairly briskly in the city these days and you either keep up or you’re in the way. Initially, I tried to use the EV mode as much as possible, just letting the torque of the electric motor pull me away from stoplights and so on, but after awhile, you get tired of people passing you, right and left.
Elsewhere, the V has slightly modified suspension and probably rides a little softer than the sedan. It’s comfortable enough, but again, don’t even think about driving with enthusiasm. Corner carving is pretty much an anathema to this one. Regenerative braking and an automatic engine shut-off when you stop the car are standard equipment.
The V also has a high level of modcons and standard equipment. Things like a climate control system, push-button start, Bluetooth capability, a hill start assist feature and tilt steering come with the just more than $27,000 base price. My tester also had the Touring package, which included heated seats, XM satellite radio, navi system, power sunroof and “synthetic” leather seats. All in, this package adds another $6,150 to the price tag.
Although it’s tedious to drive, the Prius V – like its stable-mates – is one of the more technologically intriguing cars on the market. Yes, it offers outstanding fuel economy, but that’s because it’s chock-a-block with all kinds of fascinating engineering details; for example, the climate control system is run off a small air compressor, the power sunroof is actually made out of resin to save weight, the seats are stain resistant, and the engine has an electric water pump. If you’re a tech-head, you could probably spend days discussing the engineering features of the V. Many people do.
If, on the other hand, you’re someone who must have a little driving enjoyment thrown into the equation, and like to put your foot in it once in awhile, this ain’t the car for you.
2012 Toyota Prius V
Type: Mid-size hybrid hatchback
Base Price: $27,200; as tested, $35,230
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder gas engine/80-hp electric motor with nickel metal hydride battery pack
Horsepower: 134 hp
Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 4.3 city/4.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Kia Rondo, Volkswagen Golf TDI wagon, Ford Escape Hybrid, Toyota Prius sedan, Honda Civic Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid