Pros: Phenomenal fuel economy; handy hatchback design; adult-size back seat; impressive standard equipment; limited-availability plug-in hybrid model
Cons: Pokey acceleration; bland driving experience; plug-in hybrid tops out at 62 mph in EV mode
By now you've probably heard that the 2012 Toyota Prius gets amazing gasoline mileage: an astounding 50 miles per gallon in mixed driving, to be precise. That's an impressive engineering achievement, but hardly a news flash. What you may not realize is that the Prius is much more than just a pretty EPA sticker. Given the dearth of practical hatchbacks in this country, the midsize Prius is actually one of the handiest vehicles you can buy. It's big enough to fit four adults or a bunch of cargo, yet compact enough to squeeze into tight parking spaces. The 50-mpg figure, then, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
It would be easier to criticize the Prius in, say, Europe, where the roads are teeming with hatchbacks and wagons, many powered by efficient diesels. Over there, the Prius's sluggish acceleration and languid handling might be deal breakers. But on our side of the pond, Toyota's green icon is not just frugal at the pump and plastered with friendly Hybrid badges for your friends to see; it's a compelling overall package. And that is the rarest of feats for a hybrid.
Even if you don't think you're the hybrid type, we'd recommend giving the Prius a shot. It's a good car that happens to be a hybrid; that's the secret of its success. Also, the Prius is currently available as a plug-in hybrid in select markets, with a wider launch scheduled for next year, so the Chevrolet Volt is about to get even more competition from the Prius family.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Toyota Prius comes in four trim levels called Two, Three, Four and Five (we're not sure what happened to One). Even the base Two is very well equipped, featuring 15-inch alloy wheels with plastic covers, variable intermittent wipers, push-button start with driver keyless entry, cruise control, automatic climate control and a touchscreen audio system that provides control over some vehicle settings along with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The Three adds a voice-activated navigation system and the Entune smartphone-based mobile app interface (unavailable on the Two), as well as an optional sunroof with unique solar panels that power a ventilation system to keep the car cool when parked.
The Four gets JBL premium sound and SofTex stain-resistant upholstery with heated front seats and driver's-seat power adjustments, while the Five goes all out with a hard-drive-based navigation system and an optional heads-up display on the windshield for vehicle speed and such (all of which get added to the Four with the available solar sunroof) - along with exclusive 17-inch alloy wheels and optional adaptive cruise control.
As for the limited-availability Prius Plug-In, it comes in either base or Advanced trim. The base Plug-In is largely a Prius Two where features are concerned, but with special wheels and instrumentation as well as standard navigation and Entune. The Plug-In Advanced is essentially a Prius Five with a special plug-in app for Entune.
The Prius's front seats aren't particularly memorable for their comfort or support, but we really like the way the dashboard curves toward the driver. It gives the cockpit a spaceship-like feel, which seems appropriate in such an advanced car. The gauges, too, look ready for outer space, comprising a variety of digital readouts and diagrams describing what the hybrid powertrain is up to. Interior materials aren't luxury grade - you'll need the Prius's upscale cousin, the Lexus CT200h, for that - but they don't seem cheap, either. The back seat has lost a little headroom relative to the previous Prius, which had a less rakish roofline, but there's still ample room for full-size adults back there, which sets the Prius apart from most other hatchbacks in the U.S. market.
Cargo space isn't too impressive on paper at 21.6 cubic feet in the trunk and 39.6 cubic feet with the 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded. However, the Prius's boxlike shape means you can fit in a lot of stuff if you need to. That's especially laudable given that the engineers had to find room for the Prius's sizable battery pack, too.
True to its high-tech nature, the Prius is brimming with great gadgetry. Even if you stick with the Prius Two, you might have all the technology you'll ever need. But the big story here is the new Entune system, which uses your smartphone's data connection (check with your Toyota dealer for a list of compatible phones) to send mobile apps straight to the Prius's touchscreen interface. The app collection is currently limited, but it already includes useful apps such as Pandora Internet radio and OpenTable dining services. Note that the Prius offers both the standard Entune interface and an upgraded, crisper-looking version that comes with the hard-drive-based navigation system.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive Prius is powered by the dynamic duo of a 1.8-liter gasoline 4-cylinder engine and an electric motor backed by a battery pack. It's actually not that dynamic. Total system output is just 134 horsepower, so the Prius predictably struggles when swift acceleration is called for. But the technology is very cool. The Prius is a dual-mode hybrid, which means the electric motor can operate on its own when the gasoline engine isn't needed. You'll notice this around town, especially when you're coasting to a stop and all you can hear is a Jetsons-style electric hum.
There's technically an electric-only EV mode, too, but it doesn't actually lock out the gasoline engine; in fact, it's very similar to driving the Prius normally, in that the gas engine only stays off if your throttle inputs are extremely gentle.
Fuel economy is an outstanding 51 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA.
Meanwhile, the Prius Plug-In features a larger battery pack that offers true EV driving for up to 15 miles at speeds of 62 mph and below. Toyota expects an overall fuel economy rating of 87 mpg-e, including 49 mpg in normal hybrid (electric plus gasoline) mode. Otherwise, the Prius Plug-In is basically like any other Prius, differing only in the extra 120 or so pounds of mostly batteries that it carries.
The Prius comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS, active front head restraints and seven airbags, including a driver's knee airbag.
In government crash testing, the Prius received an overall rating of five stars out of five, tallying a four-star rating for frontal impact protection and a five-star mark in side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded it the top Good rating in all categories.
The Prius rides smoothly and fairly quietly, which is a good recipe for a relaxing commute. If you're used to driving a normal car, however, you may be struck by a sense of detachment from the driving experience. For better or worse, the Prius drives like an ultramodern transportation pod, from its numb steering to its odd brakes (which feel that way in part because they're responsible for converting the car's kinetic energy into battery power). In an attempt to appeal to more enthusiastic drivers, Toyota now offers a dealer-installed PLUS performance package that adds forged 17-inch alloy wheels, sporty styling cues and a lowered, sport-tuned suspension. We're not sold on this package, though; since the point of the Prius is to drive conservatively and save gas, we'd rather just enjoy the standard suspension's compliant ride.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Insight - Honda's Prius-fighting hybrid hatchback hasn?t worked out as well as the company hoped, but it still delivers strong fuel economy, and it's considerably cheaper than the Prius.
Honda Civic Hybrid - The Civic is a sedan, so it's less practical than the Prius, and it's not as efficient, either. But it's one of the few other affordable hybrids on the market, and you might find that it drives more conventionally.
Chevrolet Volt - The Volt certainly doesn't come cheap, but if you're considering the Prius Plug-In, which isn't cheap itself, note that the Volt has far more EV range, and it's not capped at an awkward speed like the Prius Plug-In's 62-mph limit for EV mode.
That solar-powered sunroof is tempting, but we'd stick with the base Prius Two. It's got enough tech for our tastes, and you might get out the door for under $25,000. Not a bad deal.