The 2012 Toyota Prius is an exceptionally efficient car at a relatively low price for people who care more about conservation than the act of driving. Given its success, the formula seems to have worked just fine.
Mechanically, the Prius is unchanged for 2012, though there have been cosmetic tweaks to the front bumper, headlights and taillights.
The fact that Toyota has sold more than a million Prius hybrids in the U.S. in the past decade is no accident. That they still make up about half of all hybrids sold — out of a couple dozen models — is likewise not a coincidence. This most recognized and recognizable hybrid's success stems from a combination of ultra-high mileage and a reasonable price.
The base sticker for the Prius Two trim level has risen to $24,765 (all prices cited include destination charges), but its 50 mpg in combined driving is untouchable for any car without a power plug. The 2011 Honda Insight hybrid starts at $19,290, yet its estimated 41 mpg trails even the previous-generation Prius' 46 mpg. Similarly, despite a redesign and mileage boost for the 2012 model year, the Honda Civic Hybrid achieves an estimated 44 mpg for $24,990.
Throw in the fact that the Prius' interior volume makes it a midsize car while those other two are compacts, and I'm ready to declare no contest and pull the Hondas out of the ring before they get hurt. Note that 2012 brings another, more-competitive option in the form of a redesigned Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan, which boasts improved mileage as high as 43/39 mpg in the base model, which is priced at $26,785.
The Prius is phenomenal in the most literal sense: It's a phenomenon. The car polarizes people, and, frankly, so do many of its owners. It dragged other automakers into an undertaking in which they saw no business case; many remain bearish on a design that employs both petroleum and electric drivetrains, which the conventional wisdom deems unsustainably expensive. Yet here Toyota is, more than 11 years into the endeavor and with plans to hybridize all its models by 2020, with the possible exception of pickup trucks.
The Prius Could Be Better
Could the Prius be better? Absolutely. For every person who likes how the Prius stands out, there has to be at least one who finds its styling unacceptably awkward. More compelling styling wouldn't hurt, but the aspect where the Prius really falls short is in the driving experience — most of it.
Prius owners love their hybrids with a freakish passion, but whatever it is they enjoy about the cars, it can't be the actual driving. They either don't notice, don't care or are willing to sacrifice in exchange for the car's undeniable appeal. There's nothing wrong with any of that.
More discerning — or perhaps just pickier — drivers will find fault. At the top of the list is the Prius' braking: I have no reason to suspect that the car won't stop safely, but the pedal feel is numb and the effect nonlinear, making the brakes difficult to modulate. All hybrids and electrics employ regenerative braking, which uses the drive motors as generators to recharge their battery packs. This recoups energy for reuse, and it means the conventional brake pads don't contact the discs except under heavier braking. There are two side effects: The pedal feels unnatural, and the transition from regenerative to friction braking can be awkward.
All hybrids and EVs exhibit this drawback, but the Prius is among the worst. We cited many technical improvements when the third-generation Prius came out for the 2010 model year, but the braking feel itself might have actually worsened. My new high-water mark for regenerative braking feel is the Nissan Leaf, though even it doesn’t rival the best experience in a normal car.
The Prius hits 60 mph in less than 10 seconds, which is not quick but is by no means a problem. The "on-ramp fallacy," as I call it, suggests that your life is in danger if your car can't hit 60 mph in 8 seconds or less (or 7, or 6, depending on whom you poll). The Prius is fine. I'm less enthused, though, about how the power is delivered compared with a conventional car or a pure EV — which is to say that it happens with some hesitation and surging, often accompanied by the gas engine revving or droning at seemingly inappropriate times.
This characteristic also appears in hybrids from Ford and Lincoln and seems to be a side effect of what is arguably the most efficient hybrid design. Honda's hybrids — and non-hybrids with continuously variable automatic transmissions — feel a little more normal, but their mileage results aren't as impressive.
Ditto for hybrids from Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia and others that employ regular six-, seven- or eight-speed automatic transmissions. These feel the most natural, but they don't achieve Prius-level efficiency.
Electric Mode … Sort Of
The Prius has a selectable all-electric mode, EV, that allegedly allows for gas-free acceleration. Not really. It may raise the threshold at which the gas engine kicks in, but it's nothing like the Chevrolet Volt — which runs electric-only under full acceleration — or even the Prius Plug-In demonstration car from our plug-in comparison that gives respectable electric acceleration to 60 mph. Prius owners will argue furiously that they drive all-electric all the time, up to about 30 mph. Maybe — downhill, with a stiff tailwind or with no one behind them. In actual traffic, these are the people you want to pull from their cars and beat with a soy burger.
In my experience, the Prius accelerates on electric power less than people seem to expect, but turns the engine off far more frequently than you'd imagine when coasting. Ultimately, no matter how satisfying purely electric mode seems, what matters are the results, and here the Prius consistently delivers.
There are three other acceleration modes: normal, Eco and Power (PWR on the button). Eco makes the pedal less sensitive and helps you drive ECOnomically, and Power puts the gas engine on a hair trigger for quicker sprints at the flick of your sensible fair-trade sandal.
The Prius' handling is also just adequate, with steering that's a little vague and lacks feedback. Sometimes we excuse lackluster handling when it comes with a soft, comfortable ride, but the Prius is no star in that regard, either. This version is an improvement over the second generation, but the ride remains firm and a bit choppy.
What do I expect for $24,765? Better, frankly. Many small cars prove you can have pleasant ride quality at a fair price. Likewise, quietness is no longer the sole province of luxury cars, and the Prius stumbles in this area as well. Sometimes noise treatments are sacrificed to save weight, and perhaps a quieter Prius would be a less efficient one. In comparison, the Volt is impressively quiet, though admittedly more expensive. The Leaf admits some exterior noise into the cabin, too, but the Prius' overall noise platter serves more courses.
The interior is where the Prius earns its stripes. Specifically, its midsize volume makes the car's mileage all the more impressive, and the hatchback design makes none of the sacrifices of hybrid sedans — the most notable of which is incomplete or absent folding rear seats.
Though it turns off some shoppers, the high-mounted, center-biased instrument panel is fine by me. If there's a problem with it, it's the low-resolution, monochrome nature of the displays. The Volt and hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima have high-res color LCDs. The Leaf and Honda hybrids don't have full LCD instrument panels, but at least they incorporate more color. For 2012, a new 6.1-inch touch-screen mitigates the crude instrument panel. Though it doesn't include navigation, standard, it has more modern displays and allows for feature setup and the like.
One arguable downside is the elimination of leather upholstery for the 2012 model year. Once standard in the Four and Five trim levels, it's been replaced by imitation leather. I say "arguable" downside because the imitation stuff tends to be more durable, and I've met some Prius shoppers and owners who prefer non-animal-derived materials.
Storage space is generous, with dual glove compartments, a roomy bin under the armrest and an area to stash a purse under the frontmost section of the center console. Regrettably, this is also the location of the optional heated-seat buttons, out of reach and easily blocked by the aforementioned purse. They're also fully on or off — no gradations available.
Perhaps the worst ergonomic foible is the shifter, which bears little resemblance to the conventional type and, more important, degrades its function. The springy thing pops back to center after you select your direction, and you have to seek out an indicator on the instrument panel to know if it worked. Oh, sure, it beeps at you as long as you remain in Reverse, which would make some sense if it did so outside the car, as the Leaf's does. What's it for? To indicate the car's in Reverse? Then how does it indicate you're in Drive or any other setting that doesn't beep?
The Volt's conventional approach proves that the shifter never had to be reimagined in the first place. Enough already.
The Prius received top scores of Good in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's front- , side- and rear-impact crash tests. Models manufactured after December 2010 also scored Good in roof-strength tests, a measure of rollover protection. It also received the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's top score of five stars overall.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock four-wheel-disc brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. The Four and Five trim levels are eligible for Safety Connect with Mayday, Toyota's version of OnStar, which can contact authorities in the event of a collision or other emergency. The Five trim offers an optional collision-warning system and lane departure warning.
Prius in the Market
Like clockwork, when gas prices rise, so does demand for the Prius, and that means shoppers will encounter higher transaction prices and fewer choices at dealerships. Debates rage over whether the higher price of a hybrid will pay for itself in gas savings, and it really depends on what you're comparing and what you value most. There is no non-hybrid Prius and few comparable gas-only models, because most midsize cars are sedans. In theory, you could make up the Prius' price premium over a cheaper gas-only model within a reasonable time frame. What frustrates the calculation is the true price of a new Prius. Due to fuel prices, it might be at or above the base sticker price, and it's even more likely that you'll find only higher trim levels at the dealership; if dealers know they can sell loaded models, that's what they'll order.
So long as this remains the reality, one could argue the Prius is as good as it needs to be. Unless a competing automaker produces a vehicle as efficient and affordable that's more rewarding to drive and/or cooler looking, the Prius will remain the runaway winner in the high-efficiency race.