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2012 Toyota Prius ReviewThe Good
Toyota introduces a new Plug-in hybrid to the Prius lineup for 2012 and gives all Prius trims a minor exterior styling update, as well as a number of new standard and optional features, including the Entune suite of mobile applications and data services.The Bad
While the Prius continues to deliver impressive fuel economy numbers of up to 51 mpg, some reviewers are less than impressed with its handling, and acceleration remains sluggish.
The CarGurus View
Fuel economy, rather than an exciting driving experience, remains the primary reason buyers are attracted to the Prius. Updates for 2012, including new standard features and a new Plug-in version, give buyers even more reasons to take a look at the Prius, which continues its reign as the number one hybrid sold in the U.S.
At a Glance
Now in the third year of its third generation, the Toyota Prius hybrid receives minor exterior updates and a few new tech gadgets for 2012, as well as an upgraded list of standard features. What hasn't changed, however, is the Prius's fuel economy numbers of up to 51 mpg, which continue to lead the class. In fact, Toyota calls the Prius "the most fuel-efficient gas-powered passenger car available in the U.S. today."
Toyota gives the Prius a freshened exterior appearance for 2012, thanks to a new front fascia and bumper, as well as redesigned headlights and taillights, which help improve the Prius's overall aerodynamics. The enhancements reduce the Prius's coefficient of drag value to 0.25, one of the lowest for any production car, Toyota notes.
In addition, the automaker adds new standard features to the Prius Two, Three, Four and Five trim levels for 2012, including new standard LED daytime running lights and new 15-inch wheels for the Two, a smart key entry system for the Three, and SofTex-trimmed seats, an 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat and auto on/off headlights for the Four. At the top of the line, the Five's optional Advanced Technology Package now includes an HDD navigation system, a heads-up display, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, a pre-collision system and a Lane Keep Assist system.
The Prius Two, Three and Four also receive new standard audio and entertainment systems. The Two gets a new audio system with a 6.1-inch touchscreen as a standard feature, while the Three now comes equipped with standard navigation, as well as HD radio, advanced voice recognition with text-to-speech capability and Toyota's new Entune system. The Four adds an upgraded audio system with 8 JBL GreenEdge speakers and an 8-channel JBL amplifier.
Toyota also rolls out its Prius Plug-in hybrid for 2012. The Plug-in runs in electric-vehicle (EV) mode at speeds of up to 62 mph, for up to 15 miles, and switches seamlessly between electric and hybrid operation. Like the other Prius hybrids, it comes equipped with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive and a new lithium-ion battery that owners can charge simply by plugging it into a regular household outlet. When operating on electric power alone, the Plug-in achieves a miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) of 84 MPGe, and it manages a still-impressive 49 mpg when operating in hybrid mode.
The Prius's current Hybrid Synergy Drive, which was introduced in 2004 for the second-generation Prius and updated in 2010, consists of a beltless 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor. Thanks to the hybrid powerplant, the Prius can run on the gas engine alone, the electric motor alone or a combination of the two. The gas engine produces 98 hp, which increases to 134 hp when combined with the electric motor. Combined torque tops out at 153 lb-ft, with enough of it coming at the lower end to ensure smooth acceleration, although some reviewers find the Prius sluggish off the mark.
The powerplant links to an electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), which shifts seamlessly, resulting in smooth acceleration. The hybrid powerplant drives the Prius from 0 to 60 to 9.8 seconds and posts fuel economy numbers of 51/48 mpg.
Four driver-selectable operating modes ensure optimal efficiency in all types of driving situations. The four modes, identified as Normal, Power, Eco, and EV, provide more or less gas pedal responsiveness, and resulting fuel consumption or savings. Normal mode provides balanced operation for daily driving, while the Power mode delivers sportier response. Eco mode provides the best fuel economy during gas-driven operation, while the EV mode uses electric power alone for low-speed driving for about a mile. A multi-information display located on the dash keeps the driver informed of the mode of operation, as well as fuel and energy consumption. Regenerative braking charges the Prius's nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery when the driver applies the brakes.
The new Plug-in trim extends the Prius's ability to operate on electric power alone at higher speeds and for longer distances. However, when needed under full acceleration or in passing situations, the hybrid powerplant kicks in seamlessly. The Plug-in comes equipped with a new 4.4-kilowatt, 176-pound lithium-ion battery pack that replaces the standard NiMH battery found in the other Prius trims. It fits under the rear cargo floor and includes its own on-board charger. Using a 24-foot battery charging cable, which stows away in its own compartment in the trunk when not in use, owners can charge the Prius Plug-in's battery in about three hours using a standard 120-volt household outlet, or in about 1.5 hours when using a 240-volt outlet. A timer allows the owner to schedule charging for off-peak hours.
Ride & Handling
Although it generally delivers a smooth ride, the Prius receives its harshest criticism for its handling and acceleration. In 2010, to provide better handling and less body roll, Toyota moved the Prius to a more rigid platform borrowed from the Camry. Although handling improved, some critics still find the Prius's steering too numb and its ride too soft. In addition, the Prius stutters a bit when starting from a cold stop, since the powerplant switches off when idling, and when the driver steps on the accelerator pedal, the car runs on electric power until the hybrid powerplant kicks in. Of course, as a trade-off for the lackluster acceleration and performance, the Prius delivers those high fuel economy numbers.
The 2012 Prius rides on an independent front suspension with MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar, and a torsion beam rear suspension. Disc brakes are standard all around, with integrated regenerative braking. However, some reviewers note that the regenerative braking system can at times affect brake feedback and feel. Similarly, the Prius's rack-and-pinion steering with electric power-assist displays a lack of feedback and can feel numb at times, according to some reviewers.
Owners seeking a sportier driving experience can opt for the dealer-installed PLUS Performance accessory package, which was designed to provide sharper handling and a sportier overall appearance. Engineered by the Toyota Racing Development team, the package includes lowered springs, a rear sway bar and 17-inch wheels, as well as unique exterior badging, limited-edition carpet mats, and a 7-piece, low-profile ground effects kit that helps reduce the coefficient of drag and improve efficiency even more.
Inside, the Prius has a roomy cabin, with comfortable, supportive seats and good cushioning for longer trips. Passengers will find plenty of headroom and legroom in both the front and the back, thanks in part to contoured, space-saving front seats that ensure optimal legroom in the second row.
All Prius trims except the Five come standard with 15-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels. The Five rides on 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels.
Cabin & Comfort
The 5-passenger Prius receives a number of new standard features for 2012, including a 6.1-inch Display Audio touchscreen, now standard in all Prius trims. The display is part of a 6-speaker AM/FM audio system, which includes a CD player, USB port, input jack, Bluetooth and audio streaming. Drivers can also use the display to view vehicle information and customize vehicle settings.
For the Three, Four and Five trims, Toyota also adds navigation, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, text-to-speech capability, an integrated backup camera display and Toyota's Entune system, all accessed through the Display Audio touchscreen with advanced voice recognition capability. The Entune system, which is similar to Ford's SYNC system, integrates with the driver's smart phone via an app and enables drivers to access in-car applications to search for restaurants and stores, shop for movie tickets, find your favorite song and check sports scores, traffic and weather. For the Four and Five trims, Toyota adds 8 JBL GreenEdge speakers with an amplifier, which are all designed to draw less electricity and increase the vehicle's overall efficiency.
In addition to the Display Audio touchscreen, all Prius trims come equipped with such standard features as automatic climate control, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, remote keyless entry, a Smart Key system, a 60/40-split rear seat and power windows and door locks. The Two and Three trims include cloth upholstery with manual adjustment for the front seats, while the Four and Five add SofTex upholstery with heated front seats and 8-way power adjustment for the driver's seat. The Four and Five trims also add an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
All trims include Toyota's Touch Tracer Display, which helps drivers keep their focus on the road ahead by projecting virtual images of two steering-wheel-mounted touch control pads onto the dashboard's instrument panel readout. Drivers can use the control buttons to manage the audio, climate control and other systems, and can view duplicate images displayed in front of them without having to look down at the steering wheel. Optional features for the Prius include a power tilt/slide moonroof with solar panels that power the ventilation system, available on all trims except the Two.
The cargo-friendly Prius offers a large trunk, with 21.6 cubic feet of storage space. That compares very favorably with competitive compact and midsize cars and even some SUVs. Seat cushions, some interior trim, and other interior components are made with eco-friendly plastics, which emit less carbon dioxide during their manufacture and lifecycles. However, some owners have noted that the plastic interior surfaces scuff easily.
The IIHS named the Toyota Prius a Top Safety Pick for 2012, since it received a top rating of Good for front and side-impact crash tests, as well as for roof strength during a rollover. The NHTSA gave the Prius an overall safety rating of 5 out of 5 stars, although specifically it gave the Prius 5 stars for side crash testing and 4 stars for frontal crash and rollover tests.
The Prius comes equipped with a full range of airbags, including advanced front, front seat-mounted side and side curtain airbags, as well as a driver's knee airbag. In addition, all Prius trims feature Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes enhanced vehicle stability control, traction control and antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. All Prius trims also include a tire pressure monitoring system and Hill Start Assist, which aids the driver when starting from a full stop on a hill.
Toyota also offers its Safety Connect service as an option on the Four and Five trims. The service includes emergency assistance, roadside assistance and a stolen vehicle locator service. Other optional safety features for the 2012 Prius include Lane Keep Assist system, which reads the lane markers of certain roads and makes adjustments to the steering wheel to keep the car in the center of the lane, and a Pre-Collision system, which adjusts the brakes and front seatbelts in the event of an imminent accident.
What Owners Think
Excellent fuel economy remains the Prius's top selling point, with many owners reporting that their vehicles are averaging mileage of around 42-44 mpg. Owners also note that the car's many tech systems do a good job of educating them on how to drive more efficiently. Other positive points include the Prius's large cargo capacity, good visibility out the rear and the Prius's many safety features. Owners also report plenty of room in the cabin, even for taller passengers, and comfortable seating all around.
However, some owners don't find the Prius a particularly exciting vehicle to drive. Handling is good but not great, they say, and some find the touchscreen fuzzy and difficult to view in sunlight. In addition, some owners say the brakes tend to grab at times. Overall, however, the Prius wins over owners with its fuel economy, efficiency and value.
Rob has been a contributor to CarGurus since 2007, and an automotive test-driver and writer since the early ’90s. He’s test-driven everything from BMWs and Jags to Bentleys and Saabs, with an occasional Range Rover, Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini thrown in. He also created the annual Car of the Year and Exotic Car of the Year awards for Robb Report magazine. He currently resides in Florida.
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