During the past 15 years, the Prius
name has become synonymous with gas-electric hybrids in almost the same context as Kleenex brand has defined the disposable facial tissue market.
No need to grab a Kleenex and shed many tears for parent company Toyota
as front-wheel-drive Prius
sales keep climbing and the Prius
family of vehicles continues growing. Toyota
, taking full advantage of strong name recognition, expands the Prius
count to four, including the family's first plug-in variant due to arrive in Chicago sometime in 2013.
The first-generation Prius
liftback utilizing a nickel metal hydride battery pack went on sale in the late 1990s in Toyota
's home turf of Japan, hitting U.S. shores in 2000. A third-generation incarnation arrived in 2010. An impressive 96 percent of Prius
models sold over the past decade are still in operation. More than 1.1 million Prius
models have been sold in the United States since the millennial turn, the most successful gas-electric hybrid by a country mile. Coming in at a distant second is Honda's Civic Hybrid with just north of 200,000 units sold.
With an estimated 51 miles per gallon city and 48 mpg highway at an attainable starting price of $24,000, it's easy to see how Prius
liftback has become the darling of hybrids. Regular 87-octane petro fills the rather small 11.9 gallon tank.
In hybrid lexicon, Prius
gets classified as a "full" hybrid rather than a "mild" version. At very low speeds, a nickel metal hydride battery pack powers the electric motor and wheels, bypassing an onboard four-cylinder internal combustion engine. These two motors operate independently or in tandem depending on driver demands. The battery pack recharges through exchanges with electric motors. No need to plug in a Prius
Mild hybrids differ from full hybrids in one significant aspect: mild hybrid electric motors do not solely propel the vehicle at any time. Instead, the electric motor acts as an assistant to the gasoline engine. Mild hybrids, while generally less costly, don't deliver the eye-popping fuel estimates of full hybrids.
Joining the Patriarchal mid-size, five-door Prius
liftback in the 2012 model year are the all-new, slightly larger Prius
V (V for Versatile) with a 58 percent more cargo space, subcompact, lighter-weight 2012 Prius
C (C for City) and arriving later in select markets, the 2012 Prius
plug-in, the first Prius
utilizing lighter lithium-ion battery packs in place of Nickel-Metal Hydride technology.
The debate between the merits of these two battery systems is ongoing as technology charges forward. Heavier Nickel-Metal Hydride packs hold self-charges longer, negating the need for pesky plugs. The industry continues exploring lighter-weight lithium-ion technology (the plug-in style batteries of cell phones and lap tops), but the limited drive/charge range needs stretching before expecting healthy volume sales.
Exterior wise, Prius
has enjoyed a relatively recognizable style without overtly screaming, "I'M DIFFERENT." Small 'hybrid' badging adorns both front fenders while the "Hybrid Synergy Drive" icon adorns the back lower hatch.
Rather than conventional "trim" levels, Toyota
designates different 'build packages' as Prius
three and the fully loaded Prius
One is designated for fleet sales with Toyota
dealerships receiving shipments of Two, Three and Four. A very limited number of factory options are available. Our adequately equipped Prius
Two tester started at $24,000 with no factory options and a handful of dealer add ons including floor mats ($225), cargo net ($49 and first aid kit ($29) bringing the bottom line to $25,063 with $760 destination charge. A top-line 2012 Prius
Four checks in at $29,805.
Electronics play a big role in Prius
. All trims come with standard, dark blue, dashboard push-button electric start/stop, electric power-assist rack-and-pinion steering, and a futuristic-looking digital dashboard. An electronic transmission takes the place of a mechanical version, including a stand-alone push-button park selection. For hybrid novices, don't let this throw you for a loop as the Prius
driving experience is easier to master than typical cell phone usage.
When summoned by a push, the electric motor emits no noise. Driver's need to visually check the dashboard display as a friendly reminder Prius
is purring and ready for duty. The same sensation plays out when stopping the engine. After engaging the "Park" button, it's imperative to push the on/off dash button to complete the shut-down process. Smartly, if one leaves Prius
with the whisper-quiet electric motor still active (which happened during testing), three beeps sound reminding the driver to return and finish the task.
A short, stubby transmission shift knob between the front buckets resembles a joy stick from a game console. The knob moves in a sideways "T" formation with reverse up, forward down and neutral to the right side base home position. Shifting can be accomplished with one finger if need be and the process is simple to master. This shift unit is part of a 45-degree center console extension from the dash to arm-rest/storage bin between front buckets. A push-button ventilation system resides upstream of the shift knob. Under the extension is a large, open storage area ideal for lap tops or small hand bags.
Residing near the ventilation system are driving mode buttons (EV, Eco Mode, Power mode) allowing drivers to maximize power or fuel economy. The EV mode allows Prius
to stay in electric mode for up to a mile at speeds approaching 25 miles per hour. The four-spoke, flat-button steering wheel includes a cruise control appendage at approximately 5 o'clock. Also on board are left-side audio controls and right side temperature and instrument panel selections.
Probably the most notable visual indicating a driver is piloting something other than a conventional internal combustion engine is the instrument panel. Rather than placing the cluster behind the steering wheel, the all-digital instrumentation resides a glace away to the right atop the central dash. A digital speedometer joins a bar-graph fuel gauge, turn signal arrows and detailed animation as to the schematic of the electric flow of power currently in use. The two-tiered glove box includes doors for each partition.
Since its birth, Prius
has been successful as a five-door hatchback. Soft cloth seat fabric is also a staple, although cushioning could be a bit more supportive. Those seeking leather seating surfaces or more luxury appointments in the Toyota
family must move up to a Lexus hybrid. Row two backrests fold down with a 60/40 split, gaining access to the cargo area. The Patriarchal Prius
rates as a midsize, handling five adults during a long trek through suburban Chicago thanks to extra leg room since no vertical floor hump is present. Rear-view mirror perception continues a bit of a challenge as the hatchback's quirky design cuts the view in half, as if a horizontal bar visually cuts across.
The rear hatch with standard wiper is relatively heavy when lifting. Seven exterior colors are available, each matching the color of strap-like door openers.
When the transmission shifts into reverse, a beeping chime is heard, similar to the sound of service-type cargo vans alerting those around to the reverse direction of the Prius
. When aggressively pushing the gas pedal, Prius
benefits from both electric and gas systems working together for quick take offs. Prius
is built for maximum fuel economy, not dynamic handling. Prius
faithful don't mind the tradeoff.
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 176.4 inches
Gas engine: 1.8-liter four cylinder
Battery: Nickel Metal Hydride
Total combined horsepower: 134
Curb weight: 3,042 pounds
Hybrid-related component coverage: Eight years/100,000 miles
City/Highway economy: 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway
Assembly: Tsutsumi, Japan