2012 Toyota Prius v
Starting MSRP $26,550–$30,140
If you're going to drive a hybrid of any type in Michigan, it deserves a run through its most natural habitat: Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is as much a Rust Belt city as the Prius is a performance car. Both are stamped out of a different kind of metal and have been plopped into Washtenaw County and onto American highways, respectively. They both emit a small mix of CO2 and smugness that just grates onlookers the wrong way. You live in Ann Arbor? You drive a Prius? (Both are true for two-thirds of the population there, from what I've seen.) The reaction to both questions is the same: roll your eyes, step back and mumble something.
So, I decided to face these beasts at the same time and went off the planned test drive route set up by Toyota Motor Corp., while testing the new 2012 Toyota Prius. I set the navigation system for Zingerman's Delicatessen. (Surprisingly, the navigation system didn't have the deli already up.)
The drive and the view of Ann Arbor from Interstate 94 were both completely underwhelming. You hear so much about them; the Prius' Hybrid Synergy Drive and the University of Michigan's Wolverines. It raises expectations to nearly unreachable levels. Finally, when you see them, it's kind of disappointing.
The Prius v ride, however, was not. It's remarkably quiet, nearly silent when it runs on electric-only power of 80 horsepower and 153 pound-feet of torque. The torque is notable during acceleration, even from a standstill, and the slight electric whirl gives the Prius v a futuristic feel.
When the 1.8-liter gas engine kicks in, the Prius v works just like the regular Prius (in fact, it's the same third-generation powertrain under the hood). This is a beltless engine, which means every drop of gas it uses goes toward driving the car. It's chock full of high-tech features, ranging from the seamless engine start/stop system to an electric water pump and air conditioner. It allows the Prius v to get 44 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. It has a range of more than 500 miles.
The Prius v also features four driving modes: Standard, Eco, EV and Power. These settings adjust throttle response and prioritize fuel consumption. Telling the differences between the driving modes is as difficult as trying to figure out which festival you're attending on Main Street. They're all kind of the same, just different groups selling the medical marijuana supplies.
Only the EV mode is noticeably different, but it can be used at only lower speeds and switches off when the car needs additional power.
The beefed-up suspension is noticeable and provides a solid ride. The Prius v is bigger than the original Prius and that means it needs to handle more weight. The ride is firm but pliant. The steering is the one area where performance is lackluster. It felt loose and lacked a firm return to center in the preproduction model I tested. It makes parking easy in tight streets, the only kind Ann Arbor offers, but driving around town the steering felt numb.
Lives up to its name
The Prius v, which is the wagon version of the Prius — the v stands for "versatility" — does live up to its purpose. There's versatility everywhere in this car. There's 34.3 cubic feet with the second row pushed back. Fold down those 60/40 split rear seats, and there's 67.3 cubic feet of space. That's similar cargo volume of larger crossovers and compact SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V (72.9 cubic feet), Chevrolet Equinox (63.7 cubic feet) and Ford Escape (67.1 cubic feet).
The second row is extremely comfortable and can recline up to 45 degrees. The front of the car is equally as pleasant and disconcerting at the same time. The highly digitized center console looks as modern as the first "Tron" film but easier to understand. Important controls such as the speedometer are up high; less important controls are lower. But there's a big chunk of blank plastic behind the steering wheel that I never got used to.
Overall, I'm not a fan of a center-mounted speedos. While Ann Arbor may foster communal living and co-op groceries, I don't think communal driving is good. There are some things, such as my current speed, that everyone in car doesn't need to know.
There are also cubbies and storage throughout the cabin — on the doors, on the roof, and even little compartments in the back under the floor.
The Prius v also features Toyota's new Entune system. The more I get used to this system, the more I like it. It allows you to have a very conversational tone to operate things like your music player or phone by voice command. There's no feature that the Prius v doesn't offer, and everyone in the vehicle, drivers and passengers alike, will feel well rewarded inside this cabin.
As for its look, Toyota was able to create a new Prius that looks like the old Prius but is new. It's that family look of a flat wedge-shaped face, pointy nose and sharply cut off back end. People may not even know it's a Toyota, but they will know it's a Prius.
The bigger body, however, throws off some of the proportions of this newer Prius model. The 16-inch wheels look one size too small.
But I don't think that will dissuade anyone in Ann Arbor — a city where if you don't have a Prius, you want one.
And that's the rub. In a place that eschews status symbols by adopting new status symbols, Ann Arbor embraces the Prius and all of the eco-credibility it brings with it.
It's refreshing, new and pretty hip. See, it doesn't feel like Michigan at all.
The best thing about the Prius v is that at least we'll get to see a different car driving around Ann Arbor.
As for Zingerman's, I believe a couple of return trips are in order — call it research.
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Overall: *** 1/2
Pros: Distinctively a Prius but with more room
Cons: Not a lot of power, especially if fully loaded
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