By Larry E. Hall
Say adieu to the Prius as a stand-alone vehicle name. Beginning with the 2012 model year, the car which has become a synonym for hybrid in the American lexicon will have a new name, the Toyota Prius Liftback.
Why is this? Because the Prius sub brand is growing. The larger Prius v is already on sale, and joining the Prius family in 2012 will be the Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the subcompact Prius c.
When it arrives in dealer showrooms in January, the Prius Liftback will have more than just a new name. Toyota has given its hybrid star a mild exterior refresh, newly styled 15-inch wheel covers, other enhancements and a small bump up in pricing. The 2012 model will continue with four trim levels – Two, Three, Four and Five – and seven configurations. The Prius Liftback One trim is available only to fleets.
Up front, a revised front bumper with an enlarged lower grille gives the 2012 Liftback a more energetic, almost muscular face. The bumper also incorporates LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and a close look reveals new clear lens headlamps with a revised LED lamp arrangement. On the backside, slightly restyled taillights include LED lights.
These minor exterior changes haven’t altered the distinct space-age shape of the Prius; a deliberate effort by Toyota to maintain the Prius’ essential and iconic appearance. Its large, diamond-cut headlamps and snub-nose front-end are the starting point for the Prius’ quasi-flying saucer appearance. The angled hood seamlessly flows into the windshield, then to a flowing roofline that is sleek and low. Short overhangs and a chopped rear section finish off the hybrid’s futuristic hatchback character.
Of course, beauty is subjective, so the Prius continues to receive mixed reviews on its appearance. There are many who think the Prius looks gimmicky, if not entirely ugly. But for many hybrid owners, the distinctive look of the Prius sends a message which declares that we must take steps to reduce our voracious thirst for oil – with all its negative consequences in terms of the environment and geopolitics. For this camp, the Prius is like a middle-finger-on-wheels aimed at Suburbans, Expeditions, and the like.
Prius’ cabin design is as futuristic as its exterior styling and hits all the marks for comfort space and high quality materials. The past success of the Toyota Prius has been its ability to combine great fuel efficiency and utter practicality.
Five adults can fit comfortably, with a generous 21.4 cubic feet of cargo room left over in back. The 60/40 split rear seats also can be folded flat, creating a surprisingly large cargo space for groceries, strollers, large boxes, gardening supplies or what have you – all at the same time. The hatchback opening is large, but the load floor itself is rather high, so lifting heavy objects aboard isn’t as convenient as it might be.
Short and tall drivers should feel equally comfortable behind the wheel. The back seat is roomy, providing a little more legroom than the Civic Hybrid – and a lot more head, leg and shoulder room than found in the Honda Insight. The Honda hybrids are cheaper by a few thousand dollars.
Bells and Whistles
When introduced in 2010, this third-generation Prius had loads of gizmos – including Touch Tracer Display, high-tech energy monitor, and a moon roof with solar powered ventilation and remote air conditioning. For 2012, Toyota throws even more technology at the Liftback.
It starts with the optional Head Up Display (HUD), a feature long associated with General Motors’ Corvette and former Pontiac brands. The device projects information like speed, hybrid efficiency and navigation details onto the windshield just below the driver’s line of sight. Controls allow adjustments for brightness and position of the projected HUD image. HUD technology is touted as a big step toward reducing driver distraction of glancing at increasingly complex console displays and increasing automotive safety.
2012 Liftback buyers can also be treated to the optional Entune infotainment system – Toyota’s answer to Ford’s SYNC system. Connect a smart phone via Bluetooth or a USB cable and Entune’s features are then operated using the vehicle’s controls or, for some services, by voice recognition. Mobile apps for Entune include Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora. Entune data services include a fuel price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather.
Other high-tech goodies include an optional radar system using advanced millimeter waves that enables “Lane Keep Assist” to help the driver stay safely within the lane, while the “Pre-Collision System” retracts seatbelts and applies the brakes in certain conditions when a crash is unavoidable. Intelligent parking offers settings to help guide the Prius into parking spaces. A backup monitor, which provides a view of rear obstacles when reverse is engaged, is available with an optional voice-activated navigation system.
Under The Hood
The 2012 Prius Liftback powertrain and mechanical features are unchanged. Prius uses Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which allows it to travel at around-town speeds on electric power alone. Sensors decide when to employ gasoline engine power or a combination of gas and electric propulsion: the goal is to efficiently balance fuel economy and acceleration.
The gas engine is a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine producing 98 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Together with its electric motor, the hybrid system generates a combined 134 net horsepower. Prius uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which acts like an automatic transmission but employs infinite ratios rather than preset gearing.
The hybrid system uses the engine and regenerative braking to recharge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack; there’s no plug-in capability. With the batteries sufficiently charged, the stop-start system can further save gas by automatically shutting off the engine and restarting it while the car is stopped.
The Prius Liftback is the only vehicle available today to offer 50 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving, a distinction it will give up in a few months. Toyota has stated the compact Prius c will exceed the Liftback’s fuel mileage although it has not provided specific numbers.
On The Road
The Prius Liftback isn’t the quickest, fastest, best handling or quietest car you can buy. But, if fuel economy and overall comfort are at the top your list, the Prius is difficult to beat.
Handling balance is nose heavy and the electric power steering has a numb, disassociated feel. Both are impediments to competent cornering; even straight-line tracking seems compromised by the steering’s artificial feel. Enthusiast-minded drivers will turn their noses up at these characteristics but as an urban commuter family car, it offers an acceptable drive. On the plus side, engine start-stop is unobtrusive and the overall ride quality is good.
For sharper handling and a sporty demeanor, Toyota offers a dealer-installed PLUS Performance accessory package. The TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engineered package starts with a seven-piece aerodynamic ground effects kit that delivers an aggressive and lower-profile stance. The custom body kit is aerodynamically designed and engineered to reduce the vehicle’s coefficient of drag, maintaining its fuel efficiency.
Seventeen-inch forged alloy wheels reduce the unsprung weight. The wheels are fitted with low profile 215/45R17 tires and have a custom offset, which increases track width yet maintains the car’s low rolling resistance. Toyota says the track-tuned lowering springs lower the vehicle 1.1 inches in the front and 1.3 inches in the rear to enhance steering response and improve cornering ability. A tuned rear sway bar helps reduce body lean for flatter cornering.
If you’re looking for a quiet ride, the Prius Liftback might disappoint. Noise intrusion created by the 15-inch low-rolling resistant tires is quite noticeable. This isn’t an issue isolated to the Prius. Honda’s Insight and Civic Hybrid also exhibit high noise levels caused by low-rolling resistant tires.
Some Prius drivers complain that the hatchback design limits the visibility through the rear window. They refer to this drawback as the “Prius blind spot.” Hatchback visibility makes some people crazy and is a non-issue for others. Take a test drive to see what you think.
Modest Price Increases
For 2012, Toyota bumped up the Prius Liftback’s suggested retail price by an average of 3.2 percent. The least expensive Prius Two has a base price of $24,000, a $480 increase. It includes keyless entry, cruise control, a new 6.1-inch touch screen multi-information display and Touch Tracer controls. The Prius Three, the most popular 2011 model, starts at $25,565, up $1,045. It adds the Entune audio system, navigation, backup camera display, and Smart Key.
The Prius Four with leather trim, heated front seats and auto-dimming mirror adds JBL GreenEdge speakers and an eight-channel JBL amplifier. Its suggested price of $28,235 is a $915 increase. The most expensive Prius Five, which includes light-emitting diode (LED) headlamps, foglamps, and 17-inch alloy wheels starts at $29,805 – up $1,015. Additional options for most trim levels include navigation and an advanced technology package.
The 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid challenges the Prius on refinement, and according to some reviewers, offers a better driving experience. It is more expensive at $28,700 but is a midsize car with lots of interior room.
Honda’s Insight hybrid is priced considerably less than the Prius: $18,350 to $23,540 fully loaded. While it is a noticeably better handling car, it’s smaller and doesn’t get the fuel mileage of the Prius.
Then there’s the all-new 2012 Camry Hybrid. Yes, at $25,900 to $27,400 it costs more and it has a lower fuel economy rating but, believe or not, it’s fun to drive, is spacious and offers some of the high-tech features found on the Prius.
What none of these competitors have, however, is the middle-finger-on-wheels image.
Prices are Manufacture Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of writing and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing..