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car review

The car that started the whole hybrid business gets a sibling for 2012. The Prius v is an identical twin beneath the skin, but with a squared-off, wagon-like rear end and offers more interior room for occupants and their belongings.

The Prius family will be further extended in the coming months with the addition of a plug-in version and a smaller Prius c as Toyota continues its drive to offer more small fuel-efficient cars to Canadian consumers than any other car company.

Since the launch in 1997, Toyota has sold more than three million Prius vehicles around the Globe, 23,000 of them in Canada. The second generation came along in 2003 and the third in 2009 and last year the Prius accounted for 70 per cent of all hybrid sales in Canada.

But since that original hybrid, almost every major player has come up with one and Toyota is determined to maintain the lead. It currently offers an extensive range of eight hybrids from the Prius to the Lexus LS.

The "v" stands for versatile. While the basic chassis and drivetrain are carried over from the Prius, with minor updates, the body has been extensively modified from the C-pillar rearward. The rear seats slide fore/aft and when in the rear-most position there is a commendable amount of legroom. When in their foremost position, rear-seat legroom is exchanged for a cargo floor that is 50 per cent longer. With the rear seats folded flat, the Prius v offers more space than most compact SUVs. You get to choose between space for legs or cargo.

There are numerous thoughtful storage touches throughout the cabin and a wide variety of configurations thanks to the split-folding rear seat and the ability to fold the front seats flat. You can actually accommodate an eight-foot kayak inside. With the second-row seats in place, there is 54 per cent more cargo space than the Prius sedan and with them flat a 41 per cent improvement.

The development team also used this opportunity to showcase some innovative new developments including audible pedestrian warning and infotainment systems, eco-friendly pseudo-leather, a lightweight resin sunroof and a "pitch and bounce control" system.

The audible warning "emits a chord frequency at the same sound pressure as a conventional gasoline engine at low EV speeds to alert pedestrians that a hybrid is approaching." However, our early production test vehicles were not equipped with the system.

The new multimedia system features a raft of voice-recognition features while the new synthetic leather on the top trim levels did a good job of simulating animal hides while emitting 99 per cent fewer volatile organic compounds during manufacturing.

The panoramic sunroof is made of a resin composite that is 40 per cent lighter than glass. More weight was saved by not providing any mechanism to open it. The "pitch and bounce control" system uses electronic controls and the torque of the big electric motor to minimize body pitch on rough roads. We tried the system on several railway crossings and found it to be most effective.

The Prius v comes in one trim level with luxury, touring and technology packages available. The base price is $27,200 – a reduction of $600 from the old model despite the addition of $1,100 in standard equipment. That includes a six-speaker audio system with USB input and wireless connectivity, automatic climate control, power windows and locks, keyless entry and tilt/telescope steering wheel with climate and audio controls.

The luxury package adds satellite radio, navigation system, sunroof and synthetic leather seats. The range-topping car comes with 17-in alloy wheels, auto-levelling LED headlights, upgraded audio and pre-collision systems, intelligent park, dynamic cruise control and voice-activated navigation.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive system works flawlessly, combining the motivation of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and a 60-kW electric motor, supplied by a 27-kW, 650-volt battery pack mounted under the cargo area. The third-generation electronic control system has been updated to this application.

Some of those updates are especially helpful in Canadian winters thanks to faster warm-ups, which allow the car to operate on battery power earlier than before.

Extensive attention to weight saving through the use of high-tension steel and aluminum resulted in a very rigid body and a weight gain of only 105 kilograms. The Prius was never a rocket and the new one, with that 105 additional kg to move around, would have been even slower had the engineers not made some changes to the final drive ratio.

The suspension, brakes and steering system all come directly from the current Prius. The electronic continuously variable transmission is also carried over and remains one of the shortcomings of the Prius – at least as far as the ears are concerned. Undoubtedly a major factor in the car's efficiency, it makes climbing long hills or passing an unpleasant experience as the little engine is held at very high and loud rpms while the car attempts to accelerate.

The Prius V offers more room and equipment and similar performance and economy at a lower price. Toyota is obviously doing everything it can to maintain its lead in the hybrid market.

2012 Prius v

Type: Five-door compact hybrid

Base price: $27,200

Engine: 1.8-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder gasoline engine, 60-KW electric motor

Horsepower: 134-horsepower combined

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.3 city/4.8 highway/4.6 combined

Alternatives: Ford Escape hybrid, Kia Rondo, Mazda5,VW Jetta TDI wagon