Photo GallerySorry there are no photos!
A week-and-a-half ago, we posted some of the web’s first images of the Prius V, Toyota’s new larger version of the quintessential hybrid vehicle. Last week, we spent a few hours behind the wheel and can summarize the experience with two simple words: Mission Accomplished.
The company’s goal in producing a wagon-like version of the Prius—as the second model after the classic liftback, in an expanded Prius line—was to add more passenger and cargo room while still delivering stellar efficiency. Toyota Division Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter told HybridCars.com that he expects the V to bring in 15 to 20 percent more Prius buyers—almost a completely different group of new folks who historically reject the Prius liftback “just because of size and capacity.”
On behalf of the many hybrid fans clamoring for a fuel-efficient people mover with three rows of seats, we asked Mr. Carter if the version of the Prius V going on sale in Japan—dubbed the Alpha rather than V—would be coming to America. Sorry, folks. Carter said that model is not suitable to the U.S. market, because the third-row seats would be a very tight squeeze.
The V goes on sale in Fall 2011. The exact date, and exact pricing, has not yet been announced.
Same Hybrid System in a Bigger Body
The Prius V earns its additional room at the expense of 8 mpg. The V is bigger, wider and taller—but delivers an EPA average of 44 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway—instead of the 51/48 of the existing version. We gave the vehicle a hard drive around Half Moon Bay’s hills and coastal road, mostly using standard mode—rather than Power, Eco or EV—and found it almost impossible to bring the average mileage below 40 mpg. Other media teams were gentler and easily beat the 44 mpg estimated average.
In a series of 30-minute and one-hour drives with ample curves, we found the steering and handling to be well-balanced if not downright elegant. The 1.8-liter V4 engine and hybrid system—the same one found on the liftback—was capable of the job of moving the larger format. Toyota keeps the nickel metal hydride battery technology on this version, but managed to slightly reduce the overall size of the pack.
For the first time, engineers employed the hybrid system to control what they call “pitch and bounce” by applying extra tension to the front wheels under some road conditions. We didn’t exactly feel that on our ride, but this version of the Prius maintained the overall driving profile its predecessor: comfortable, accessible and easy—if not exactly the most exciting ride. That’s okay. It’s not the reason for this vehicle. Its raison d’etre is to provide as much or more cargo space as nearly every small SUV on the road—and to stomp that competition on efficiency by granting 42 mpg when those vehicles commonly eke mileage in the mid-20 mpg range. The Prius V succeeds.
Interior build quality, as expected, ranges from near-luxury for the top-of-the-line trim levels to humble and basic for the cheaper trims. Layout and ergonomics is classic Toyota. It works. The company spent a ton of time at the media event talking up its Entune infotainment system, which when it worked provided some cool features—like on-board Bing searches that offered up maps to the navi or a call via a Bluetooth-linked phone with one push of the touchscreen. However, a number of the vehicles at the event had trouble keeping the data sync via Bluetooth.
The Camrification of Prius
Historically, people either love or hate the Prius’s wedge shape, and the dramatic curve of its liftback. No matter which camp you’re in, the Prius design is undeniable. For the front half of the Prius V, the iconic wedge remains in place—but the rear end breaks the mold. Engineers did a great a job of producing a very competitive .29 coefficient of drag—but this second Prius model starts to look slightly less like a Prius, and more like any other Toyota model.
Perhaps this is intentional. After all, Toyota has hinted that it expects Prius to outsell its long-time mainstream mass-seller, the Camry, in a matter of years. You could view the shift in body design as a necessary gesture to bring in more buyers—or as diluting the Prius brand’s mojo. Prius has been exciting to the green set because it’s different and it leads in mpg. The Prius V is less unique, and although it still leads in efficiency for the functionality it provides, it’s simply no longer cutting-edge—especially in the era of electric cars and plug-in hybrids that have nominal EPA ratings heading toward triple digits.
In other words, maybe it’s finally time for the Prius to “cross the chasm,” that mythical marketing moat that separates early adopters from mainstream Middle America. The prospect of $5 gas is perhaps exactly the right time to move Prius into the heartland. However, one nagging worry is that in crossing the chasm, the Prius could be jumping the shark. As a derivative of the liftback, it looks fine—but if this was your first exposure to Prius, the sheet metal design looks back heavy. The Prius V’s large rear end is a bit awkward—not as bad as the Pontiac Aztek (widely regarded as one of the ugliest cars of all time), but any conjuring up of images of the Aztek can’t be a good thing. The Prius V stands for Versatility, just as the Aztek used this tagline when it was introduced more than 10 years ago: “Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet.”
So, let’s hope the Prius V is more of a Camrification of the Prius, rather than an Aztekification. And that those 20 percent of new Prius owners love their hybrids as much as the 1 million American Prius drivers already on the road—not for being ahead of the curve in terms of technology and design, but for being a solid practical choice in an era of high fuel prices.