Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
We've already seen the 2012 Toyota Prius. The car that has become synonymous with hybrid vehicle hasn't changed much since we tested the 2010 model, not long after the third-generation debuted. There are a few styling and packaging tweaks, a few new bits of Entune-powered cabin tech, and (most notoriously or subtly, depending on whether you're looking for it) an ever so slightly higher sticker price. Aside from now being just one of four models to bear the "Prius" moniker, the "Classic Silver Metallic" 2012 Toyota Prius Four that rolled into the Car Tech Garage this week was just that: classic Prius.
It was gearing up to be a dull week of fuel economy testing, but then I had what at the moment seemed like a genius moment. Rather than glide around silently in the Prius' ECO mode to test Toyota's and the EPA's claim of 50 mpg combined, why not slap the Power Mode button at the beginning of every trip, drive it like a San Francisco cabbie (a large number of whom actually do drive Prii), and see if I could throw a monkey wrench in Toyota's fuel economy claim.
In our previous reviews of Prius models, we've tested electric only range, we've tested theoretical maximum fuel economy. This time, I set about to test the Prius' performance when I simply stopped treating it like something special--when I stopped babying the gas pedal and just drove it like I actually needed to be somewhere on time.
At the beginning of every trip, I hit the Power button to activate the Prius and then I hit the Power Mode button. Power mode does nothing to actually affect the engine's behavior, but it does increase the sensitivity of the accelerator pedal, making it the most responsive and potentially least fuel-efficient setting. Rather than being met with a hesitant crawl away from the stop light, applying a reasonable amount of pedal pressure resulted in a reasonable amount of acceleration as the Prius' electric motor pulled the hatchback forward, joined just a second later by the gasoline engine.
All in, the Prius only outputs a maximum 134 hp from its Hybrid Synergy Drive power train. Ninety-eight of those ponies are provided by the 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine; the rest are supplied by the 80 hp (60 kW) electric motor. (And before you point out that those numbers don't add up, we know and so does Toyota. Gasoline and electric motors output power at different rates, and combining their power isn't as simple as adding A to B.) That's not a huge amount of total power, so it's no surprise that the Prius doesn't snap the neck, even in its Power Mode. However with some combination of 105 pound-feet of torque from the gasoline engine and 153 pound-feet from the electric motor (Toyota doesn't seem to publish a combined torque number), the Prius isn't particularly slow off of the line either.
If you can tear your eyes away from the plethora of displays and meters reporting back your instantaneous fuel economy and crank up the JBL Green Edge stereo to overcome the obnoxious noise made by the gasoline engine when it inevitably pops on -- it sounds more like a large vacuum cleaner than an internal combustion engine -- then the Prius is not a bad ride. It goes, stops, and corners in a perfectly acceptable manner. Sure, there's a bit of lagginess between a pedal press and the continuously variable transmission allowing the gasoline engine to wind up and supply power, but the electric motor is always there to fill that critical moment between needing power and getting it, so I'm not complaining.
Then I started noticing something interesting. Despite my best attempts to drive like a douche bag, the 2012 Prius' trip computer was still consistently hanging out in the 48 to 50 mpg zone. And it didn't matter what I threw at it. Rush-hour traffic, extended highway cruising, city stop-and-go: the Prius just stared back blankly with 50 mpg.
I was beginning to feel defeated, when I decided to toss the Prius into what I like to call the Fuel Economy Crucible. This approximately 110-mile route involves leaving CNET's San Francisco offices at 4 p.m. on a weekday, crossing the Bay Bridge at the beginning of rush hour to eat at my favorite hamburger spot in Oakland (a closely guarded secret), then pushing down toward San Jose during the most congested hours of the day, and finally a hilly freeway blast back North to San Francisco. Most cars are showing their worst-case scenario fuel economy after this route, so I was sure that the Prius would finally buckle.
About 110 miles, one delicious hamburger, and 4 hours later, I was exhausted, but the Prius just stared back blankly, "Fuel economy for this trip: 56.6mpg." Foiled again!
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.
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 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.
|Model||2012 Toyota Prius|
|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|
|Price as tested||$28,995|