When Toyota first introduced the Prius, not everybody understood how a hybrid works. After years of publicity, and the Prius becoming a common sight on the roads, most people get it.
But now Toyota reintroduces confusion to the Prius brand by creating new models that share the name. The first of these to hit the market will be the 2012 Prius V, a car that uses similar styling and power train to the current Prius, but offers substantially increased cargo area and seating room.
Toyota designed the Prius V, the "V" standing for versatility, to accommodate U.S. drivers' penchant for loading up on 64 packs of toilet paper rolls at Costco. As chief engineer Hiroshi Kayukawa noted during a presentation on the new Prius, Japanese people don't buy as much big stuff as Americans.
More exciting than extra cubic feet of cargo space, however, is the new navigation and audio head units Toyota is introducing with the Prius V. Along with a premium hard-drive-based navigation system, Toyota offers a lower-priced flash-memory-based unit. And all of these head units work with Toyota's new Entune system, bringing apps such as Pandora and Opentable into the car.
Toyota will roll this new head unit technology out into its other models as they receive updates, replacing the severely outdated DVD-based navigation systems currently in use.
For a preview drive, Toyota chose the picturesque but nonoptimal roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains around Half Moon Bay, in California. The driving route included steep ascents and tight corners, all of which would conspire against the Prius V's EPA-rated fuel economy of 44 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.
Prius fans may lament the drop in fuel economy from the Prius hatchback's 50 mpg, but the Prius V is 6 inches longer, and boasts 50 percent more cargo area, according to Toyota.
For comparison, the Honda CR-V has 35.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up, and 72.9 cubic feet with the seats down. The Prius V claims 34.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 67.3 cubic feet with them down. But fuel economy for a four-cylinder CR-V is only 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
The Prius V offers more passenger area than the standard Prius, with rear seats that slide forward and back, and recline. In the front seats, the extra space is notable, with the feeling of more elbow room and a wide console working as an arm rest. Six-footers will find their heads brushing the ceiling in the rear seats, but reclining those seats restores inches of headroom.
Similar to the Prius hatchback, the Prius V uses a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to a hybrid system that can drive the car with an electric motor. Total output from this system is 134 horsepower, but Toyota changed the differential ratio to get a little more torque from the system to cope with the larger vehicle.
Little is changed from the driving experience between the Prius models. With the brakes on, the gas engine shuts down, causing that unnatural quiet familiar to hybrid drivers. A light tap on the accelerator and the Prius V rolls forward under electric power, running silent.
Or, it would be silent, except for the pedestrian safety sound system Toyota installed. This system uses an external speaker to broadcast a synthetic sound at speeds up to 30 mph, giving parking lot pedestrians warning of the Prius V's presence. The sound is barely audible to the driver when the window is open.
As with the original Prius, the V's gas engine seamlessly kicks in when the driver calls for more acceleration, adding to the boost from the electric motor. Over flat highways and up mountain roads, the extra bulk of the V was barely felt. Going up a long, fairly steep, ascent with the V in Eco mode, it took a lot of pressure on the accelerator to keep up with traffic. But tapping the Power mode button alleviated this anemic behavior, getting the Prius V up the hill with a more comfortable quarter throttle.
The electric power-steering system felt a little more boosted than in the standard Prius, allowing effortless turning of the wheel. Banging the Prius V around switchback turns in the mountains, the steering reacted well but felt lifeless, but this was not the home territory for the car. In a more appropriate urban environment the car would easily handle low speed turns. During one run through a yellow left turn light, the Prius V didn't feel particularly stable as we hooked the wheel to clear the intersection.
While not spectacularly comfortable, the Prius V's ride was about what you would expect. Bumps in the road make themselves felt in the cabin, but the car damps out jolts well enough.
Toyota also fits the Prius V with new anti-oscillation technology, to keep the car from bouncing up and down when going over recurring bumps. Wheel sensors detect when the suspension starts to oscillate in reaction to something like evenly spaced freeway expansion joints. The drive computer then applies a little bit of torque from the hybrid system's electric motor that cancels out the bouncing motion.
Over the mountain driving route, the Prius V's trip computer showed a mid-30s average fuel economy. But that number pushed continually higher, approaching 40 mpg, on flatter sections of road during this preview drive.
Trim levels and tech
When the Prius V goes on sale sometime in the fall of 2011, Toyota will make it available in three trim levels: the Prius V Two, Prius V Three, and Prius V Five. The Two comes standard with Toyota's new Display Audio system, essentially a 6.1-inch LCD in the dash to make using the audio system easier. The upper two trim levels add a flash-based navigation system as standard, but the top trim level, Five, can be optioned with Toyota's Premium navigation, a hard-drive-based system with a 7-inch LCD.
Using both the flash and hard-drive navigation systems, the maps showed bright colors and good resolution. The systems tracked the vehicle location well and the onscreen interface reacted quickly enough to touch-screen input. Both systems also overlay traffic information on the maps.
Beyond basic navigation system utility, Toyota's new Entune system brings in some very useful connectivity. To enable Entune, the driver must have a smartphone with the Entune app paired to the car. The Entune app is available for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry. Entune uses the phone's data plan to enable a set number of apps. Entune will launch with Pandora, iHeartRadio, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, and Bing.
The first two, Pandora and iHeartRadio, add Internet-connected audio sources to the car. With Entune's Pandora interface, not only can you choose stations and give songs a thumbs up or thumbs down, you can also create a custom station when the car is parked.
Bing adds Internet-connected local search to the car, integrated with the navigation system. Not only can you use the touch screen to enter search terms, but Bing also works with voice command. For each search term, Bing returns a list of its best-matching locations.
As a test, one journalist on the preview drive entered the phrase "paris hilton," to which Bing responded with a list of locations in France. In a more prosaic test, the term "pizza" brought up a list of nearby pizza joints. Strangely, the search results were not sorted by distance, an oversight on Toyota's part.
The standard navigation system also uses the phone's data plan to bring in traffic, weather, and fuel prices. The premium navigation system relies on satellite radio for this data.
A backup camera featuring distance and trajectory lines comes standard on the Prius V. The top trim can also be had with adaptive cruise control and an automatic parallel parking system. A feature that would be nice is blind-spot detection, as thick rear pillars on the car make it difficult to see during lane changes.
Toyota has not announced pricing yet, but says the Prius V will be priced just a little more than the hatchback Prius. With its interior space and fuel economy, it should present a compelling choice for buyers, especially those looking to upgrade from the standard Prius.
More exciting is the cabin tech, which will find its way into other Toyota models. The flash-based navigation system presents a cheaper option than the hard-drive-based system, with few feature sacrifices.
Entune also looks to be an excellent strategy for bringing connected services into the car. Using a paired phone means owners won't be paying for two data plans.