By Steven Cole Smith, Special to Tribune Newspapers
February 25, 2012
For decades, auto manufacturers have been using "platform sharing" as a path to profitability — develop one basic vehicle, with an engine and transmission, and use it for a variety of vehicles: A sedan, a coupe, maybe a wagon or even a crossover SUV.
Certainly this isn't news to Toyota, which has used the Camry, for example, as the basis for a variety of vehicles, including Lexus models, over the years. But with the sudden plethora of Prius models (Toyota insists the plural of Prius is "Prii," incidentally), you'd think the company has just discovered the concept.
The gasoline-electric hybrid Prius, which first went on sale in Japan in late 1997, has always been a sedan, first sold here as a compact and then redesigned for 2004 as a midsized car, as it is now. Deservedly the best-selling hybrid, the Prius sedan is EPA-rated at 51 mpg in the city, 48 on the highway. The model has been profoundly dependable and resale value has been excellent. (But is it fun to drive? Um, well, let's get to that in a moment.)
So it's a little surprising that it has taken this long for Toyota to cash in on the Prius platform. The company already has with one model, the new-for-2011 Lexus CT 200h, but now the Prius itself gets siblings — the smaller Prius c and the larger Prius v.
The Prius v is essentially a station-wagon version of the Prius sedan. As such, it's bigger and heavier, and consequently mileage suffers, with an EPA-rated 44 mpg on the city, 40 on the highway. Most hybrids, incidentally, get better mileage in the city than on the highway, the opposite of conventional vehicles, because the lower-speed city driving allows for more use of electric-only mode.
The Prius v — the "v" is lowercase, per Toyota's cutesiness, and stands for "versatility" — is a genuine five-passenger vehicle that still has 34.3 cubic feet of luggage space in the rear. Fold the rear seats down, and that increases to 67.3 cubic feet. Rear seats are firm — actually, "hard" might better describe them — and they are very upright in their normal position, but they recline. Unless front-seat passengers are basketball player-sized, rear seat legroom is more than adequate.
Typical of Toyotas, there aren't many standalone factory options. You get either the base model, the Prius v Two; the v Three adds a tilt steering wheel, a navigation system and upgraded electronics; and the premium v Five adds bigger tires and wheels, upgraded upholstery, self-leveling LED headlights and a few other features. You can get the v Five with an "Advanced Technology Package" that includes a sunroof and "Dynamic Radar Cruise Control," which monitors traffic in front of you and adjusts your cruise speed accordingly.
The test vehicle was the mid-level Three, which had everything I need. If you don't look in the rear-view mirror and notice all that extra car behind you, the Prius v drives just like the regular Prius, because that's essentially what it is. Power comes from the smooth, quiet little 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, aided by the electric motor, combining for 134 horsepower. The Prius v has three push-button settings that govern performance: EV allows you to run for short, slow distances on electric power only; ECO gives you the best combination of power and economy, and PWR maximizes the power at the expense of mileage, helpful for climbing hills or merging onto the expressway.
Under almost all circumstances, ECO is fine. Throttle response isn't as good as it is in the PWR setting, but if you need to speed up, the power is there, thanks in part to an improved continuously variable automatic transmission. The engine turns on and off seamlessly as the Prius goes in and out of electric-only power — it's perceptible but not at all obtrusive. Let's face it: Toyota has had a lot of time to perfect this hybrid powertrain, and it works very well.
That said, is it fun? Not particularly. The Lexus CT 200h shows that the Prius platform can be sportier, with improved steering feel and better handling, but the Prius is all about maximizing mileage. The Prius v is comfortable and competent in every situation, but it's definitely our best example of car-as-appliance. I want that in a refrigerator, but I'd like a little more from my car.