By Roger Boylan
All hail Prius V! Actually, that’s “V,” the letter, not the Roman numeral. The various trimlines of the Toyota Prius were once designated in dynastic fashion—Prius I, Prius II, etc.–but the new V designates “versatility,” or “versatile.” Certainly not “Vroom.” Of course, the Prius was never intended to be a driver’s car.Toyota’s market demographic is the no-nonsense general public with a penchant for frugality and right thinking and no interest in cars except as A to B appliances. With over 2 million Prii sold since 2001,that seems to be a good business model.
Now the Prius clan is expanding to include the V, a wagon, as well as the PHV, a plug-in (Texas version scooped right here on Autosavant) and a—can you wait for it?—a “hot hatch.” Hot? Any degree of hotness in a Prius would seem to be a contradiction in terms. It’s a placid vehicle that inclines toward cool, if anything, although a certain innate dowdiness might get in the way. My Prius V tester came in a very cool royal blue (sorry: “Blue Ribbon Metallic”), with snazzy 16-in. alloys. (My colleague Charles Krome snagged Autosavant’s first drive of a V back in June of last year.) It looked pretty good, better than its hatchback sibling, which it closely resembles; but there are differences, if you look hard, which most people won’t.
Notably, the V is bigger. To be precise, it’s 3 inches longer, 3.3 inches wider, 1 inch taller, and 232 lbs. heavier. Still, apart from the higher, extended roofline, culminating in a discreet lip spoiler above the rear liftgate, there are few external differences that catch the eye. Inside, where it matters, the differences are more noticeable: 34.3 cubic feet of space with the back seats up and 67.3 cubic feet with the seats folded. (This compares favorably to the capacity of the V’s RAV4 cousin: 36.4 and 73, respectively.) I had no trouble loading a week’s supply of groceries, plus three bags of mulch, without folding down the rear seats. When folded down, they yield enough space for a couple of deckchairs plus golf clubs and a suitcase or two, proof that stretching the Prius has paid off, at least in this regard. The V feels airier inside, too, more like a mini-minivan than a station wagon, a resemblance enhanced by the stand-alone center console between the front seats. This console is nicely trimmed in faux suede, and provides a comfortable elbow perch; a small panel next to the driver houses the EV, ECO and PWR drive-mode buttons. The latter is the one you need if you ever want to get out of your own way. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The seats, cloth in my test vehicle, are very comfortable, front and back, with the appropriate ride height and degree of bolstering, although mine had manual controls only. In front of the front seats is a winking, blinking, hi-tech instrument panel, which differs in the V from the standard hatchback for no good reason that I could determine. Indeed, the center-mounted binnacle, housing readouts of vital info like the speedometer (digital, of course, in huge white numerals), energy flow, driving range, battery charge, etc., is smaller than the one in the standard Prius, and farther from the driver, across a wide expanse of plastic; consequently, it’s that much harder to decipher when the car’s in motion, while simultaneously succeeding in being a constant distraction. What’s wrong with analog gauges, anyway? Too boring and low-tech, no doubt. (Yes, here I go again. And while we’re at it, let’s imagine a real base model econo-Prius, with big round simple gauges, an ordinary-looking dashboard, hand-cranked windows, AM radio, vinyl seats, no digital readouts, and a five-speed manual transmission. Now, wouldn’t that be an eco-friendly stripper? But today’s ecoloyalists put their comforts first.)
Back in the real world, the Prius V comes with a lot of stuff. Mine lacked the luxo package that can set you back $30K or more, but it still had power heated outside mirrors; remote keyless entry with pushbutton start; the upscale Entune infotainment system, including a backup camera, XM Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and nav system; auto climate control; and 16-in. alloy wheels. All this was supplemented with a raft of safety devices, including the usual suspects: stability and traction control, electric brake-force distribution, and multitudinous airbags, including side-curtain and driver’s- knee, an ensemble stellar enough to earn a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the picky Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Thus equipped, the Prius V will roll off your neighborhood Toyota lot for $28K. That still seems like a hefty chunk of change, considering that the same money or less on the same lot will get you a 2012 Camry SE V6 that rushes from 0 to 60 like a bionic gazelle…ay, but there’s the rub.
With the Prius, what you gain at the fuel pumps you lose in the twisties, despite the availability of three drive modes. If you opt for ECO mode and hit the middle of the three afore-mentioned buttons displayed on the center console, your 0-60 time feels measurable in minutes, not seconds. All-electric EV mode is even more limited, and yields to the gas engine above 35 mph or less. Basically, it restricts you to drifting silently around parking lots going “ooo” and “aaaa” and goosing unsuspecting passersby. Only PWR delivers anything like a punch, and it’s not much of one, not with the same weakling 134-hp hybrid powerplant that powers the standard hatchback struggling at full pitch, assisted by the CVT’s lone infinite gear, to haul a bigger and heavier car. The racket reminded me of a Renault Dauphine I once knew and loved, but that was then (awhile back then, believe me). I can’t remember what theDauphine’s 0-60 times were like, but in the Prius V I saw the big white numeral “60” come up on my digital readout from a standing start in just under 11 seconds: say, 10.7? Not much fun.
But then who said it was about fun? If you want fun, get a Miata. If you want frugality at the pump, get a Prius—although the V is less frugal than the base hatch. EPA estimates for the V are 44 mpg city/40 highway/42 combined, by contrast to 51/48/50 for the common-or-garden hatchback iteration. Still pretty impressive figures, don’t get me wrong—all the more impressive for being accurate. I averaged somewhere between 40 and 42, in a combination of backroad, freeway, and urban driving in and around Austin and the Hill Country. On regular gas, needless to say.
Outstanding fuel economy is hardly unexpected in a Prius of any type; it’s the car’s raison d’être. But despite the varied terrain, the driving experience itself was less than memorable. Frankly, it’s something of a boring car to drive long distances, with more road noise than I would have expected, acceptable but vague steering feedback, and predictable but dull handling. The brakes are good, and every time you hit them, thanks to their regenerative feature, the battery gets a bit more juice; but there’s that bellowing engine to contend with whenever you need power. Still, let’s remember the Prius isn’t built to deliver thrills. It’s a transportation device, and an efficient one, with good cargo space, excellent reliability, good comfort, high safety ratings, and low fuel costs. In many ways, the ideal family hauler for the environmentally aware.
The Prius V: It’s pro-family. Go for it. Just don’t expect to win any traffic-light derbies, unless you’re racing a Renault Dauphine.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.