The Toyota Prius has racked up more than one million sales in the U.S. since its introduction in 2000, and is now Toyota’s third-best selling passenger car. Yet, the familiar 50-mpg Prius gets crossed off the shopping list of many consumers who say the quintessential hybrid is just not quite big enough. They want stellar fuel economy packaged with more space.

In response, the 2012 Prius v, for “versatility,” joined the standard third-generation Prius last fall as the second model in a new Prius family of cars that also includes the just launched Prius c, an economic compact version. The fourth family member, the Prius Plug-in, will arrive in the next several weeks.

Sporting nearly 60 percent more cargo space, 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 conventional Prius Liftback version. It also has a bigger price tag with a starting price of $26,400 compared to the Liftback’s base price of $24,000. There are three trim levels offered: the Prius v Two, Prius v Three and Prius v Five.

Looks (Mostly) Like A 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 signature wedge remains in place, but the rear end breaks the mold with a sheet metal design that looks back heavy and somewhat awkward. (Remember the Pontiac Aztek?)

2012 Toyota Prius V

It’s easy to categorize the v as a station wagon version of the Prius, but it’s not just a stretched out standard Prius with a new body. The new vehicle, designed from the ground up, is larger in all dimensions versus the 2012 Prius Liftback. The Prius v rides on a 109.4-inch wheelbase compared to the 106.3-inch wheelbase of the conventional Prius Liftback, and the overall length of the v is 181.7 inches versus 175.6 inches for the Liftback. Add 1.2 inches in width and 3.3 inches in height and the v not only has more cargo space, but also offers additional passenger room.

Not quite as aerodynamic as the Liftback model, the Prius v nonetheless has a commendable 0.29 coefficient of drag. Toyota engineers paid careful aerodynamic attention to the bumpers, corners and roofline, as well as rocker panels, mirrors, wheels and wheelcovers. Still, apart from an enlarged front under grille and the higher, extended roofline, culminating in a discreet lip spoiler above the rear liftgate, there are few external differences.

Same Hybrid System And Drivetrain

The hybrid system and drivetrain for the Prius v are nearly identical to the one used in the Prius Liftback model. With judicious pressure on the accelerator pedal, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive System allows the Prius v to travel at around-town speeds on electric power alone. Sensors decide when to employ gasoline engine power or a combination of gas and electric propulsion: the goal is to efficiently balance fuel economy and acceleration.

The gas engine is a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine producing 98 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Together with its electric motor, the hybrid system generates a combined 134 net horsepower. Like all Prii, the v uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which acts like an automatic transmission but employs infinite ratios rather than preset gearing.

2012 Toyota Prius V

The hybrid system uses the engine and regenerative braking to recharge a slightly smaller on-board nickel-metal hydride battery pack; there’s no plug-in capability. With the batteries sufficiently charged, the system can further save gas by automatically shutting off the engine when the car comes to a stop and restarting it when the brake pedal is released.

The system carries over four driving modes – Normal, Power, Eco and EV. Power maximizes throttle input at the expense of fuel economy, useful for freeway merging or passing slower vehicles; ECO has sluggish acceleration but provides the best mileage; and EV allows driving at low speeds for about a mile on electric power only. The normal mode, which is the default when the car is started, is somewhere between ECO and Power when it comes to fuel mileage and acceleration performance.

Bigger Is Better

For those considering a five-seat crossover vehicle, a look at the Prius v could sway your decision. Behind the rear seat is 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which increases to 40.2 cubic feet when the back seats are moved forward. Fold the 60/40 split rear seats flat, and that number swells to 67.3 cubic feet. That’s more room than the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda Element or Nissan Rogue crossovers offer.

There’s more. Respectable sized underfloor storage bins add to the Prius v’s function as a family hauler. Additional interior storage includes door pockets, two gloveboxes, a console bin and a large open cubby beneath the center stack.

2012 Toyota Prius V

If you’re familiar with the standard Prius, you won’t find any surprises in the cabin’s front half. That means an instrument panel placed in the center of the dash below the windshield rather than the traditional location behind the steering wheel. Readouts include the speedometer, fuel gauge, trip odometer, gear selection, battery state of charge and a graph showing real-time driving efficiency.

Below the instrument panel, is a screen in the center console with more hybrid info. An Energy Monitor display shows the power flow between the engine, battery and electric motors. It’s great for entertaining passengers who have never experienced a hybrid car, but if you believe safe driving includes keeping your eyes on the road, don’t select it.

The Prius v’s larger dimensions are focused on the cargo area, but passenger space is increased by 3 percent compared to the Liftback. This translates to a little more leg, shoulder and hip room plus a generous amount of headroom. Front seats are large and well bolstered. Short and tall drivers should feel equally comfortable behind the wheel with a standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel and height adjustable seat.

2012 Toyota Prius V

Like its smaller sibling, the Prius v has a smart key system with push-button start; an electronic shift lever; hill assist control, a back-up camera, and seven airbags – all as standard equipment. Available options include energy-efficient LED headlamps; dynamic radar cruise control with a pre-collision system; and a parking guidance system.

2012 Prius v buyers can also be treated to the Entune infotainment system, Toyota’s answer to Ford’s SYNC system. Connect a smart phone to the vehicle via Bluetooth or a USB cable and Entune’s features are then operated using the vehicle’s controls or, for some services, by voice recognition. Mobile apps for Entune include Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora. Entune data services include a fuel price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather.

Behind The Steering Wheel

To my knowledge, no one has proclaimed the Prius Liftback a “fun-to-drive car,” and the Prius v follows in the same tracks. Handling balance is nose heavy and the electric power steering has a numb, disassociated feel. Both are impediments to competent cornering; even straight-line tracking seems compromised by the steering’s artificial feel. Enthusiast-minded drivers will turn their noses up at these characteristics but as a family hauler, it offers an acceptable drive. On the plus side, engine start-stop is unobtrusive while on the road, the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor is, for the most part, insignificant.

For the first time, engineers have 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 the claimed benefit during our week with the v, but this version of the Prius maintained the overall driving profile of its predecessor: comfortable, somewhat noisy and easy to drive.

2012 Toyota Prius V

With a weight gain of around 250 pounds, the v’s acceleration can best be described as leisurely so passing on two lane roads needs to be well planned. Toyota says that the 0-to-60-mph time is 10.4 seconds, versus 9.8 seconds for the Prius Liftback, a pace that won’t win any stoplight drags. That’s OK. 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 trample that competition on efficiency by granting 42 mpg combined fuel economy when those vehicles commonly eke mileage in the mid-20 mpg range.

As for that EPA 42 mpg combined rating, like all of our Prius test drives dating back to 2000, the 2012 Prius v blessed us with a higher number. After 339 miles of mixed driving we average 43.7 mpg.

The Family Hauler For You?

At the moment, the Prius v has no head-to-head competitor. There isn’t another vehicle that can deliver the fuel mileage and interior space at any cost. With a sticker price of $26,400, the base 2012 Prius v Two is reasonably well equipped, but if you don’t need the space, the base 2012 Prius Liftback is $2,400 less and delivers a combined 50 mpg. If the v is the best fit for your needs and you want more features, the Prius v Three starts at $27,165, the Prius v Five at $29,990. Surprisingly, there are no entertainment screens for backseat passengers offered. Sorry kids.

2012 Toyota Prius V

For fuel economy and space, the closest Prius v challenger is the Volkswagen SportWagen TDI. This turbocharged diesel powered wagon has a smidgen less cargo room and bests the Prius v’s highway numbers by 4 mpg, but is 8 mpg shy of what the v gets in the city. The bonus is, at about the same price, performance handling is included. If seven-passenger seating is a must, the Mazda 5 falls within inches of the Prius v’s exterior and interior dimensions and has minivan-type rear sliding doors. Fuel mileage won’t match the v, but the 21/28 mpg combined with a starting price of $19,625 make it a practical option.

The 2012 Prius v is a segment-buster with all the versatility and comfort of a family hauler while delivering unparalleled fuel economy. This larger version of the quintessential hybrid vehicle fulfills its mission: a more versatile hybrid than the already useful Prius Liftback.

Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.