2012 Toyota Prius Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2012 Toyota Prius

New Car Test Drive
© 2012 NewCarTestDrive.com

The 2012 Toyota Prius Liftback comes in hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions. A traditional hybrid-powered car such as the Prius is propelled by the combination of an electric motor (or motors) and a gasoline engine; it cannot be plugged in; the motor's batteries are recharged by the gasoline engine.

However, the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid can also be recharged to extend the range of its electric power by plugging it into your house current.

While the Prius uses nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid employs newly developed lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. Both versions use Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will allow true electric-vehicle, or EV, operation for up to 15 miles at speeds up to 62 mph, according to Toyota, along with quick home charging using a standard AC outlet and 15-amp dedicated circuit. The Plug-in Hybrid comes with an easy-to-use external charging cable, but you'll want an electrician to set up a dedicated charging circuit for your garage or driveway. Operating in EV mode, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid provides the quick, smooth, quiet driving of a pure electric vehicle. the Prius Plug-in Hybrid offers the same five-passenger seating and luggage space as the standard Prius Liftback. The lithium ion batteries mean the Plug-in Hybrid weighs about 100 poinds more than the standard Prius. The two versions are otherwise nearly identical.

The Prius gets an EPA-rated 51/48 mpg City/Highway, for a Combined rating of 50 mpg. It runs on Regular gasoline.

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid is rated 51/49 mpg City/Highway, or 50 mpg Combined, though the federal Environmental Protection Agency also gives it a rating of 95 miles per gallon equivalent, or MPGe, for an Electricity plus Gasoline Combined rating. The EPA estimates owners will spend $1,000 a year on gasoline for the Prius Plug-In Hybrid versus $1,150 for a garden variety Prius.

Due to its sales and promotional success, the Prius model name has evolved to become a brand name extended to the larger Prius v wagon and the smaller Prius c compact. It's all very confusing, with three different body styles and a choice of drivetrains all going under the Prius name. Fortunately, we sort it out for you with reviews of the Prius v and Prius c separate from the Prius Liftback models covered here. When it's just called the Prius, it's the original Liftback that can't be plugged in.

The Prius Liftback is capable of seating five, four comfortably. Though classified as a midsize car by the U.S. government, the Prius Liftback looks and feels more like a large compact car to us. When we think of midsize Toyota models, we think of the Toyota Camry. The Toyota Corolla is nearly four inches longer in overall length than the Prius and it's wider; the Camry is 13 inches longer than the Prius and three inches wider, a huge difference. Add to that the hatchback design of the Prius, which makes it look like a compact car. Underway, its ride quality, handling, levels of noise, vibration and harshness, and overall demeanor make the Prius feel like a compact car.

The current Prius is a third-generation car. More than 1 million examples have been sold in the United States since the introduction of the first-generation model was introduced here in 2000 as a 2001 model. (It was first launched in Japan in 1997.) The Toyota Prius was redesigned for 2010, sleeker and more powerful than the second-generation version (2004-2009 models). Prius was unchanged for 2011.

For 2012, Prius gets updated styling and an expansion of Toyota Entune connectivity features. Updated headlights and tail lights plus a new front fascia and bumper distinguish the 2012 Prius from the 2010-11 models.

The Prius models use a 1.8-liter gasoline engine along with the Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor. Acceleration performance from the Prius is lethargic: 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds. The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, is smooth.

There are three driving modes: EV, ECO and Power. EV is all electric, for very short distances at speeds under 25 mph; ECO provides the best fuel mileage, without noticeably compromising performance; and Power, the default mode, is needed for brisk acceleration.

Driving a Prius is easy. Handling is easy if not nimble at slow speeds, and the brakes are sensitive while being stacked with electronic capabilities for safety. The ride feels stiff over jagged slow bumps but smooth in most situation. Interior noise is surprisingly high despite increased sound insulation. Many owners might not notice, but others will.

In the back seats, there's 36 inches of legroom, not great for a midsize car, though we view the Prius as a compact car, and the 60/40 split rear seats have a folding center armrest with two cupholders, for when there's not a third passenger back there.

Cargo space is generous with nearly 40 cubic feet of capacity when the back seats are dropped flat, and the big liftgate makes loading easy.

Prius comes loaded with technology. The Touch Tracer Display projects information before your eyes, so you can keep them on the road. Input comes from the pilot at the controls on the steering wheel, including not just audio and cruise control, but also climate control and trip computer, with telephone and other controls available. A solar-powered ventilation system is available, with remote pre-cooling to cool the car down to ambient temperature before you climb in on a hot day. There's a warning beep when you're unsteady in your lane; radar cruise control; Intelligent Parking Assist that will parallel park the Prius with no steering or throttle input from the driver; and pre-collision emergency braking to slightly reduce the impact when you don't see an accident coming but the car's radar does.

The Chevrolet Volt feels more like a midsize car and it feels more sophisticated and more upscale than the Prius does. The Prius feels lighter and more refined than the all-electric Nissan Leaf does.

Model Lineup

Toyota Prius Two ($24,000); Prius Three ($25,565); Prius Four ($28,235); Prius Five ($28,320); Prius Plug-in Hybrid ($32,000), Plug-in Hybrid Advanced ($39,525)

Walk Around

Updated headlights and tail lights plus a new front fascia and bumper distinguish the 2012 Prius from the 2010-11 models.

The blue-tinted headlights are elegant wraparound trapezoids, with optional LED lenses consuming 17-percent less battery power. There's a styling tweak, like a wave or a lip or, with a stretch of the imagination, a lightning bolt at the top, and it works, to deliver distinction. The taillights are standard LED, reducing power draw by 88 percent.

The rear wiper is huge, and effective in keeping rain off all that glass back there. The matt black trim around the windows on the Prius Two and Three trim levels doesn't do much to complement the car; the satin black finish on the Prius Four and Five is nicer.

Interior

The Prius interior is satisfying. There's a nice cozy cockpit feeling in the driver's seat, nestled by a stylish center console that runs from dashboard to between the seats at a gentle slope. The CVT shift lever is located there, just ahead of the world's easiest-to-reach cubby. Inconveniently, the seat-heater button is located on the floor under the console.

The front seats are comfortable with good bolstering and adjustability. The trim looks nice, ecologically friendly plastic made of plant-derived resin with excellent recycling characteristics. The upper and lower gloveboxes hold a magnificent 12 liters.

There's 36 inches of rear legroom, not bad at all, and the 60/40 split rear seats have a folding center armrest with two cupholders, for when there's not a third passenger back there.

When the seats are dropped flat, there's nearly 39.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, easily accessible through the big liftgate. We hauled seven 16-inch wheels shod with Dunlop racing tires in the back. The eighth had to ride in the front seat, but we were impressed with the cargo capacity.

And there's another 2 cubic feet in the tray for tools and laptops, hiding under the floor of the cargo area. The compact spare tire is another level down. A tonneau cover for the cargo area is standard.

There's good forward visibility even over the long dashboard, stretched by the steeply sloped windshield, although, as with other aero cars (the Honda Fit comes to mind), you can't see the front corners. And visibility out the rear glass is compromised by the aerodynamically sloped roofline and the bar that separates the two pieces of glass.

The four-spoke steering wheel with many controls is interesting and not ugly. It's fun to watch the multi-function display of the instrument panel, although the novelty might wear off. On a 5-inch screen, there are graphs and images, including an Energy Monitor, displaying the battery charge in real time; a Hybrid System Indicator that reveals the efficiency of your driving technique; fuel mileage in 1- or 5-mile increments; past fuel mileage; and a Touch Tracer Display that projects steering-wheel-control information upward so you can keep your eyes on the road.

Driving Impressions

The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine used in the Prius generates 98 horsepower. Combined with the electric motors, there's a total of 134 hp.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive system, with two compact motor generators within the transaxle, delivers operating voltage of 650 volts. It uses gear drive, allowing the motor to turn 13,500 rpm. The Power Control Unit (inverter) is compact. The Nickel-Metal Hydride battery pack is compact and powerful. The Lithium Ion setup in the Plug-in Hybrid weighs a little more. The air conditioning compressor and water pump are driven electrically, which means the air conditioner works, though not full blast, even with the engine turned off.

There are three driving modes: EV, or all-electric, with a very limited distance at 25 mph or less (if there's enough juice in the battery), most useful for underground parking garages.

That's the advantage of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. It can run at speeds of up to 62 mph in EV mode for up to 15 miles, great for stop-and-go commuting.

ECO mode minimizes fuel consumption by reducing the throttle opening and restricting the air conditioning. The Power mode is for maximum acceleration performance. The difference between Power and ECO is 4.1 seconds from 50 to 70 mph, versus 5.8 seconds. If you're in ECO and floor it, it will kick itself into Power, which is also the default mode when you start it up. So you have to set ECO mode at every stop, to get the best mileage. But we wonder why anyone would drive around town in Power mode, because ECO feels no slower. The Prius accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds, usually fast enough though slow by modern standards.

When you accelerate hard and it kicks into Power mode, it can be abrupt, like a transmission kick-down. But like all hybrids it uses a CVT, continuously variable transmission, which is technically not an automatic because it doesn't have gears. Most of the time you're not aware the Prius CVT is there, which is how they're supposed to work.

The Prius is EPA-rated at 51 city and 48 highway, for a combined 50 miles per gallon. We got 54 mpg driving gently but still sometimes using Power mode, over 23 miles of city-highway driving; and later 70.5 mpg over a 34-mile street course in a competition with other automotive journalists. We averaged 28 mph, about average for the group.

The winner, a specialist hypermiler, got 94.6 mpg driving by all the tricks. He averaged 19 mph, moving at about 30 mph in the far right emergency lane of the 50-mph highway, showing that it takes travel in an unreal world to achieve those big numbers. An opposite leadfoot extremist managed to get 26.8 mpg. The other 26 of 28 drivers got between 63.3 and 75.3 mpg.

In an early prototype of the Plug-in Hybrid, we got 41.8 mpg for about 180 miles, 26 of them on full electric, and most of the rest at 65-70 mpg in Power mode.

One flaw in the Prius is its bumpy ride: pretty rough over patchy stuff, we noted during our test drive. The suspension was given a slightly wider track and increased roll rigidity for 2010. The pre-2010 Prius didn't feel as harsh. The 15-inch wheels are fitted with low-rolling-resistance tires (195/65R15), and maybe that explains it.

We also drove a Prius with the optional 17-inch wheels and 215/45R17 tires, which felt slightly smoother although theoretically they should be firmer; we got better mileage with them, 57.4 mpg, although the Prius chief engineer said the 17s deliver about 5-percent less mileage.

A test drive in the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid felt very smooth. Perhaps the slightly higher weight of the Lithium Ion batteries smoothed the ride.

We thought road noise was high in the Prius.

The four-wheel disc brakes are sensitive, and we could hear rubbing at low speeds with ours, partly because there was no engine noise when backing off, and possibly because of the regenerative braking component: the more you use the brakes, the more battery juice you build up, enabling you to use EV mode more. On our 70.5-mpg run, we gently used the brakes a lot in city traffic, so we would get as many blocks as possible out of EV mode.

The handling is light enough around town, but out on the road, if you try to drive it aggressively in corners, it turns heavy and slow. The slower you drive it, the better it is. That said, cornering is much improved over pre-2010 models with the redesigned chassis and suspension.

We tested the optional Intelligent Parking Assist, part of the Advanced Technology Package available for Prius V, which parallel parks the car for you, if the space is big enough. It needs a margin of 7 feet 9 inches, more than half the length of the car; most drivers can handle a space that big with no worries, so it's fair to ask what's the point, unless you're not at all competent at parallel parking (and we know skilled race drivers who fit that description). Like many high-tech innovations, it does it because it can. You can set the distance you desire to the curb. Pull up, line up, press the button, it tells you when to go; then release the brake pedal and take your hands off the steering wheel and let it do its thing.

The Toyota Prius achieves an EPA-estimated 51/48 mpg. It's practical, with plenty of cargo space. The interior design is futuristic without being out there, and the front seats are comfortable. The available leather and upgraded materials are classy. The suspension is sharp over patchy pavement, and road noise is surprisingly high. The Plug-in Hybrid version adds a little more versatility with its ability to run longer and faster in full-electric mode.

Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Prius in California's Napa Valley and of a Prius PHV prototype near Portland, Oregon; with Mitch McCullough reporting on the Prius Plug-in Hybrid from New Jersey.

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