Toyota’s Prius is very often among the first to be thought of when one considers purchasing a hybrid car. This is not too surprising as Toyota created the hybrid segment when launching the original Prius 12 years ago.

Since then, Prius grew from being a model to becoming a family of models and turned into a sub-brand under the Toyota umbrella.

Today, Toyota offers three hybrid vehicles under the Prius name: the subcompact Prius c introduced in 2012; the third generation of the original, which Toyota has begun calling the Prius Liftback; and the tall wagon Prius v, also introduced as a 2012 model year product.

A fourth Prius, we will come back to in another article is the Prius Plug-In, a variation on the Liftback which can be plugged into a household electrical outlet for the batteries to be charged.

Toyota Hybrid Drive Logo

All share an evolution of Toyota’s patented Hybrid Synergy Drive and rely on a mix of conventional gas engine and electric motor to bring forward – or backward – motion to the vehicle.

“But, which one better suits my need?” is a question we often hear.

We spent time with each of them to better understand their strengths and whom they each better serve on a daily basis, using each version as most households would.

Prius Liftback

Toyota Prius Liftback Front Left

First, let’s start with the benchmark for this article, the one most think of when the Prius name is mentioned: the Liftback.

The third generation of the original was introduced in 2010 with a heavily touched-up exterior, revised interior and updated powertrain.

Like all Prii, the Liftback seats five. Its generous size means all occupants have decent space and its 106.3 inches wheelbase helps both interior space and riding comfort.

The mechanical heart of the Liftback is built around a 1.8-litere, 4-cylinder DOHC 16-Valve engine designed with Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing w/intelligence (VVT-i) system as well as sequential multiport electronic fuel injection. This reliable engine is combined with a permanent-magnet synchronous motor and sealed nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries.

The motive power produced by this hybrid poweertrain is sent to the front wheels through an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT).

This hybrid powertrain allows the Prius Liftback to return an EPA fuel consumption ratings of 51 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg combined.

This impressive fuel consumption is also helped by the 0.25 low coefficient of drag as well as the 3,042-pound curb weight.

As is true for all Prius models, drivers of the Liftback can select the drive mode; in addition to the standard driving mode, the Prius drive system also includes an Eco driving mode, an EV driving mode, and a Power mode. In Power mode, enhanced mid-range response enables easier coping with slopes and mountainous terrain. In EV mode, the Prius v can run on battery power alone for short distances and lower speeds, up to about a mile. In Eco driving mode, the engine management system prioritizes fuel economy, managing throttle response and limiting power consumption from the air conditioning.

Trim levels start at the Prius Two level ($24,200) and go all the way to the top of the line Five ($30,005 ), which can easily be considered a luxury car. For those wondering, there is a Prius One trim level, but it is basic and reserved for fleets. New for 2013 is the Prius Persona Series Special Edition ($27,130), close to the Four in price and aimed at the style-conscious buyer.

Taking place at the wheel of the Prius reserves a few surprises to the uninitiated. First, the instrument panel is located in the center on top of the dash, not behind the steering wheel as is customary. Second, gone is the usual PRND gate of traditional automatic transmissions; in its place is a gearshift lever could be considered as a joystick by anyone seeing it for the first time. This lever allows the driver to get the car moving forward, backwards, or engage regenerative braking (B on the shifter).

This last function contributes to keep the battery charged as one slows down or goes downhill. The Prius’ Hybrid Synergy Drive system does so automatically, but the driver can choose to emphasis the regenerative braking when wanted. The function can also serve as downgrading to a lower gear when some engine braking is needed, like going down a very steep hill.

Another surprise in driving the Prius is the lack of noise at low speeds and the stop/start function at intersections. Yes, the gas engine will cut off when the car is stopped and the vehicle will leave the intersection first on electric power alone when the light turns green. The gas engine will kick-in when speed, rate of acceleration or energy available in the batteries requires it to do so.

From a practical standpoint, the interior of the Liftback offers many well-placed and useful cubicles and the general size available for occupants compares favorably to other cars of its size.

The trunk, with its hatchback type of opening, can accommodate large objects and is of a decent size even though the batteries do hamper its shape, with a floor that is higher than other cars. On the plus side, the rear seats fold down, and do so creating a useful perfectly flat platform with the trunk.

On the road, the Liftback is no sports car, but power is plentiful to keep up with traffic and to go on with driving duties without feeling punished driving an underpowered car.

The first aspect an owner may start noticing after the novelty wears off is the noise level in the car. This is a direct by-product of pushing to make the car as fuel efficient as possible.

Less sound deadening has been installed in order to keep the weight down, which allows more road noises to get in the car. This combines with higher tire noise coming from the low resistance tires, once again chosen to reduce fuel consumption.

This noise level is far from being as obtrusive as the noise level of cars from thirty years ago, but make sure to pay attention to this aspect of Prius ownership when test driving one. It is very subjective; some can’t stand it, others don’t mind at all. And it does apply to all Prius models, not only the Liftback.

Prius c

Toyota Prius C Front Left

As mentioned, the c is the subcompact model of the Prius family and shares many hidden components with the Yaris hatchback of similar size.

The Prius c replaces the 1.8 liter engine of the Liftback with a smaller 1.5 liter 4-cylinder DOHC 16-Valve engine designed with Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing w/intelligence (VVT-i) system as well as sequential multiport electronic fuel injection.

Total system power goes from 134 horsepower in the Liftback to 99 horsepower in the c. At the same time, weight goes down from 3,042 pounds to 2,500 pounds and the wheelbase loses almost six inches.

In short, the c’s powertrain is very similar to the one originally found in the second generation of the regular Prius.

Fuel consumption is EPA rated at 53 mpg in the city and 46 mpg on the highway, for a combined rating of 50 mpg.

As one can quickly realize from these numbers, the c makes a great city car. Its length of 157.3 inches allows it to fit easily in most parking spots and both its city fuel consumption and its size makes it a perfect city fit.

What it looses in size on the outside it does not lose completely on the inside. Yes, the inside is smaller, but this will be felt marginally in the front where most tall adults will feel just as comfortable in this c when compared to the Liftback. The c offers a little less shoulder width, but a tad more headroom, both for front and rear passengers.

The rear trunk offers 17.1 cu. ft. of very useable space compared to the Liftback’s 21.6. The space is very accessible with the help of the hatchback design and the folding rear seats gives even more cargo space when needed.

While the c is down 35 horsepower total, it is also lighter by 500 pounds; the car thus does not feel underpowered and will be more than sufficient for most situations. Even on the highway, the c does handle well and will not feel underpowered.

But when compared to the Liftback, the c is clearly at its best as a city / suburbs car, with occasional jaunts on the highway. It will carry five adults, but those having to often carry rear adult passengers will prefer the Liftback.

Prius v

Toyota Prius V Left Rear

While the c was a compact evolution on the Prius theme, the v is the model expanding the Hybrid Synergy Drive technology in the tall wagon market.

While the v shares the same mechanical components, it does so in a larger car. The v is 231 pounds heavier, has a little over three more inches of wheelbase and is bigger in all dimensions.

Most of all, it has a higher roof that reaches out further in the back, allowing for a trunk of the size found on many SUVs.

While it was designed as a seven seater for markets like Japan, only the five seat configuration is offered here.

All the extra size and weight has an impact: fuel consumption drops to a still respectable 44 city, 40 highway and 42 combined.

The v’s strength is in the practical aspect of its interior. It offers SUV interior space with drastically better fuel economy.

Practical cubicles abound and the rear seat has the benefit of offering some travel fore and aft while the seat back’s angle can be adjusted. The extra space available is felt all around the car and the difference between the v and the Liftback’s interior space is felt a lot more than numbers would lead us to believe. While stepping down to the c may not be felt too much space-wise, stepping up to the v makes a huge difference.

Toyota Prius V TrunkThe extra weight and size does hamper performance, but the only time an owner would really feel it is while driving on the highway. In comparison to the Liftback, the v relies a lot more on its gas engine and will be constantly pushing to keep the wanted speed, while the Liftback seems to do so effortlessly.

We believe this explains why the vehicle is offered only as a five seater in North America. It is not unusual for a car in Japan to be in low speed traffic most of the time, with close to no trips on the highway. Considering Americans go faster more often, the extra weight of the passengers would hamper performance to a point where North American expectations would not be met.

Handling is in no way hampered by the extra size or weight. The long wheelbase contributes to make this v even more comfortable over bumps while the extra width compensates well for the extra height and weight when turning.

As expected, the trunk in this v is very useful with 34.3 cu. ft. of available cargo space before folding the rear seats. It grows to 67.3 cu. ft. when the rear row is folded down. This makes the v a perfect choice for active families.

So, Which One?

A huge part of this answer relies in you fully understanding your needs.

The Prius Liftback is a great all-around car and this is key to the success of the Prius nameplate. Not too big for the city, good on the highway and in the suburbs, it will answer the needs of most families of four or less.

The Prius c brings better city fuel economy as well as a size that will be beneficial in tight areas like San Francisco, New York or Montreal … Or any downtown core where space is at a premium. This c will make you happy if most of your driving is in the city and suburbs, or as a very practical second car used for commuting while a bigger car is kept for family outings.

The Prius v is perfect for those active families who find themselves often together in the car. Happier in the city and the suburbs, it will still carry the family on that occasional family trip, offering plenty of space and conveniences to four or five occupants.

If most of your driving is done on the highway, then the Liftback is preferable … Or step up to the Camry Hybrid, but that discussion is for another article.

Prius Comparison Chart

Prius Model c Liftback v
Base Price (US) $19,080 $24,200 $26,650
Engine Size 1.5 Litre 1.8 Litre 1.8 Litre
Battery Type Ni-MH Lithium-ion Lithium-ion
Hybrid System Net Total 99 hp (74 kw) 134 hp (100 kw) 134 hp (100 kw)
Electric Motor Power Output 60 hp/45 kw 80 hp/60 kw 80 hp/60 kw
Battery Cell Count 120 168 168
Battery Power output 19.3 kw 27 kw 27 kw
U.S. MPG (City/HWY/Combined) 53/46/50 51/48/50 44/40/42
CDN L/100 (City/HWY/Combined) 3.5/4.0/3.7 3.7/4.0/3.8 4.3/4.8/4.5
Curb weight [kg (lb.)] 1,132 (2,500) 1,380 (3,042) 1,485 (3,273)
Wheelbase [mm (in.)] 2,550 (100.4) 2,700 (106.3) 2,780 (109.4)
Height [mm (in.)] 1,445 (56.9) 1,490 (58.7) 1,575 (62.0)
Length [mm (in.)] 3,995 (157.3) 4,480 (176.4) 4,615 (181.7)
Width [mm (in.)] 1,695 (66.7) 1,745 (68.7) 1,775 (69.8)
Tire size (base version) P175/65R15 P195/65R15 P205/60R16
Cargo capacity [m3 (cu.ft.)] Behind rear seats 0.48 (17.1) 0.61 (21.6) 0.97 (34.3)