2012 Toyota Prius

NRCan Fuel Consumption Estimate: 3.7/4.0 L/100 km city/highway
US EPA Fuel Consumption Estimate: 4.6/4.9/4.7 L/100 km city/highway/combined
Observed Real-World Consumption: 5.0 L/100 km (400+ km city/highway)

The Toyota Prius didn’t become the global ‘face’ of hybrids just because it looks weird. It delivers exactly what it promises—incredibly low fuel consumption, even in the most demanding driving conditions.

As has been reported by many owners I’ve questioned, 5.0 L/100 km is an entirely realistic combined fuel economy figure, and that is exactly what we achieved in a week of commuting on one of the world’s worst stretches of stop-and-go highway traffic: the 401 through the GTA.

2012 Toyota Prius
2012 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

While the Prius delivers the fuel efficiency goods, it does take some adjustments to drive it smoothly. As with most hybrids (and now in many non-hybrids), free electrons are collected from the brake rotors in order to recharge the battery. It is not a significant amount of braking force, but you can feel a slight tug as soon as you get off the gas. And when you add brake pedal pressure, it comes to a stop in sudden, jarring fashion until you get used to it.

The battery powering the Prius’ 60-kW electric motor (80 hp) is a Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack providing 27 kW output at 201.6 volts. The chief advantages of NiMH batteries are their proven stability and affordability—they cost far less to produce in the sizes needed for automotive application than Li-ion. However, NiMH batteries are, on average, heavier for equivalent power storage than Li-ion.

2012 Toyota Prius
2012 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

Acceleration is slow and smooth in the Prius and it is almost impossible to tell when the 1.8L gas engines fires up and when it switches back to electric power. The direct-injection engine contributes 98 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque to the cause, and the combined gas-engine/electric motor output is rated at 134 hp, routed to the front wheels through a CVT transmission. You can get a bit more oomph in a driver selectable Power mode, but really, just accept the slowness, try to keep it in EV mode as long as possible, and drive at its pace—that will also yield the best fuel economy. It can cruise comfortably at 120 km/h, although the small engine is a bit whiny at that speed, and everything just seems more natural and comfortable at 100–110 in this car.

Many complain that the Prius handles no better than an average shopping cart, but I think it handles credibly for its purpose. I never even contemplated exploring its limits, and don’t really care how soon it understeers or whether it is vague when pushed beyond speed limits around onramps. I highly doubt most owners would either.

It is stable, quiet, and comfortable on the highway, but excels in tight confines, where its compact footprint and light, quick steering make it an excellent city car. It is also a cinch to park, except for the weird split rear window because of the aerodynamic liftback design. Thankfully, the Prius comes with a standard backup camera, so that’s a wash.

2012 Toyota Prius
2012 Toyota Prius
2012 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

Other standard features on a base Prius ($25,995 MSRP) are Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB jack, keyless entry with push-button start, auto climate control, and cargo capacity of 445 L with 60/40 slip folding rear seats for more flexible space. One surprise we noted was that the Prius handled a six-foot ladder with more room to spare for the front-seat passenger than the CX-5. Our $31,220 Prius Touring included a nav system, satellite radio, fog lamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, and extended Bluetooth adding phonebook and streaming audio.

If there was one thing we would improve, it is the interior materials. While the Prius is pioneering Eco-plastic—plastics derived from plants—those are not the reason for acres of tinny, tacky plastic everywhere; those are just cheap materials to offset the cost of the advanced powertrain. Some drivers also found the central gauges disorienting and difficult to adapt to, but that might just be the adjustment period—I found them highly visible and clear.

The Prius doesn’t need any defenders; it sells both as a practical, efficient compact car, and as a rolling symbol of energy efficiency and clean emissions. And while some drivers might never be able to give up their desire for an involving driving experience, the Prius entertains with its own unique brand of eco-accomplishment rewards that engages the mind more than the seat of your pants.

Price: 2012 Toyota Prius
Base price: $25,995
Options: $3,555 (Touring Package: navigation, satellite radio, integrated garage door opener, fog lamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, auto-levelling LED headlamps, headlamp washers, passenger door handle touch sensor lock/unlock, and extended Bluetooth adding phonebook and streaming audio)
Freight & PDI: $1,565
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $31,220

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