2012 Toyota Prius review:

2012 Toyota Prius

Prius engine bay
The 1.8-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive system may be low on power, but it's big on efficiency. Josh Miller/CNET

Anecdotes aside, the 2012 Prius liftback finished up at 47.6 mpg combined when I finally refilled the gas tank at the the end of my 430.5 mile week -- an impressive feat when you consider that I went out of my way for poor fuel economy. The Prius is an amazing bit of engineering. It thrives in what are traditionally inefficient driving situations. Toss it into a traffic jam and it will hum along nearly silently in battery electric mode. Floor it on the freeway and it will show low instant fuel economy while you accelerate, but as soon as you stop looking the Prius will start recharging its battery with the engine while its excellent aerodynamics allow it to slip through the air at, you guessed it, about 50 mpg.

Prius Entune navigation
Toyota offers a premium navigation system, but our Prius was equipped with this basic level system. Josh Miller/CNET

Cabin tech and options

The third-generation Toyota Prius is available in multiple trim levels: Prius Two, Prius Three, Prius Four, and Prius Five. Why there is no Prius one escapes me, but I assume that designation is being held for a decontented model for sale in other markets.

Our 2012 Prius Four sits second from the top and features a healthy list of standard cabin tech equipment, including a push button starter and smart key entry, the Prius-standard monochromatic eyebrow display with Touch Tracer steering wheel controls, heated SofTex (a synthetic leather-like material) trimmed seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, automatic climate controls, and a Homelink rearview mirror with an auto dimming function.

At the center of the dashboard is a 6.1-inch color touch display, which is home to the Prius' Entune-powered infotainment system. Place the Prius in to reverse and here is where you'll find the view out of the rear-view camera displayed, but the screen is also home to a basic navigation system, the Bluetooth hands-free calling system, and controls for iPod, USB, and A2DP Bluetooth audio streaming. An analog auxiliary audio input, AM/FM/XM Radio, and a single-slot CD player round out the available list of audio sources. Toyota locks the driver out of many parts of the touch screen interface while driving, so you won't be able to browse your phone's address book or search for a destination while on the move. (Presumably this is for driver safety, but I find it odd that this same system makes you perform three taps to even see the map.) However, you are given a fairly comprehensive voice command system that allows you to call a contact by name and enter an address via a series of spoken prompts.

All audio is played through a JBL Green Edge audio system that has been optimized to draw as little power as possible from the Prius' battery pack while in use, but also to deliver big sound. It's not the best car stereo that I've tested, but it is still rather good. Bass reproduction is particularly good at moderate volumes. Boost the bass level of the three-band EQ too much or crank the volume too high and you will hear an obnoxious rattling coming from all over the Prius' cabin. Unless you like distortion and buzzing, I'd suggest that you keep the bass at just one or two tick above flat and the volume below three fourths. Thankfully, the Prius is quiet enough at most speeds that listening above moderate levels is mostly unnecessary. High frequencies did seem just a bit muted to my ear, but that's nothing that couldn't be fixed with the EQ. Three or four ticks of treble boost seemed to be about right, but your preferences may differ.

Earlier I called the navigation system "basic"; that's because it doesn't feature traffic data -- at least, not on its own it doesn't. However, you can gain access to this functionality and others by pairing your Internet-connected smartphone via Bluetooth to open up the Entune app functionality. After connecting and logging in, the Entune system can download traffic updates, sports scores, stock prices, search Bing for local destinations, and stream Pandora Internet radio. I had issues connecting to the Entune service during my week with the Prius Four, but that's just as likely to be the fault of the smartphone I used during testing, which was also curiously unable to connect for Bluetooth audio streaming. This system is essentially the same as the one tested in the 2012 Prius c, so check out that review for more details.

If you want to get fancy, you can add an optional $3,820 Deluxe Solar Roof package which adds a power moonroof with solar-powered ventilation, the premium HDD navigation system which uses a more robust version of the Entune service and SiriusXM satellite connectivity for its traffic, weather, sports, and stocks, and a head-up display (HUD). Also available from Toyota are a bizarre pair of PLUS Appearance and Performance upgrade packages, but I have a feeling that adding 17-inch wheels, a body kit, lower springs, and a rear sway bar to a Prius could only boost the performance from "ugh" to "meh." Our tester was equipped with neither of these packages and came in at a relatively affordable $28,995 (including a $760 destination fee).

In sum

In many ways the Toyota Prius is like the iPhone of the automotive world. Judged by specs alone -- whether you're talking horsepower, screen size, zero-to-60 time, camera megapixels, cornering g-forces, processor speed, or slalom speeds -- neither of these devices (and yes, the Prius really is a device much more than it is a "car") is particularly impressive. The Prius doesn't pack a ton of power; the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen looks a bit small in a world filled with 5-inch phablets. Judge them by user experience, however, and you get a much different picture. The iPhone just works, and so does the Prius. Toyota's hybrid doesn't ask you to do anything special to attain its 50 mpg. Only that you get in, drive, and let the Hybrid Synergy Drive system handle the rest.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Toyota Prius
Trim Four
Power train 1.8-liter Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive
EPA fuel economy 50 city, 48 highway mpg
Observed fuel economy 47.6 mpg
Navigation Basic w/ Entune traffic and weather
Bluetooth phone support yes
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio system JBL Green Edge
Driver aids Rear-view camera
Base price $28,235
Price as tested $28,995

What you'll pay

    Hot Products


    Discuss: 2012 Toyota Prius 5dr HB One

    Conversation powered by Livefyre