2012 Toyota Prius Hatchback - FROM $24,000
With a bevy of new high-tech features for 2012, the Toyota Prius enhances its appeal and status as the quintessential hybrid.
What's New for 2012
The 2012 Toyota Prius gets slightly different styling cues along with additional standard infotainment features and the availability of power front seats and Toyota's Entune suite of smartphone and Internet integration features. A new Plus Performance accessory package lends the Prius sharper handling and a sportier, more aerodynamic exterior.
The 2012 Toyota Prius is to hybrids what Kleenex is to tissues. Other brands may offer something similar, but the Prius is what people think of when they think hybrid. But is this perception still warranted now that more competitors seem to pop up every year?
To keep things fresh for 2012, the current, third-generation Prius receives its first minor refresh. The subtle styling tweaks are barely discernible, while its other updates are more substantial. Even the base model Prius Two (the Prius One is for fleet sales only) now comes with Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, dedicated iPod control and a touchscreen electronics interface. All trims but the Two get Toyota's new Entune system, which bundles satellite radio-sourced real-time information with a suite of apps that connect the Prius to the Internet via your smartphone. It's now possible to wirelessly stream Pandora or iHeart Radio through the car's sound system.
Beyond this increase of electronic toys, the 2012 Toyota Prius maintains the practical advantages that have made it so successful. With an EPA combined rating of 50 mpg, the Prius is topped only by the new Prius C subcompact, or more expensive plug-in models like the Chevy Volt and upcoming plug-in Prius. The Prius also stands out from the crowd because of the generous dimensions of its backseat and the versatility of the hatchback-style cargo area. In fact, the Prius is so practical that it's used as a taxi in many cities.
There are downsides, however. Interior quality leaves much to be desired, with more hard, unpleasantly grained plastics than other brands offer. While the Prius is easy and intuitive to drive, there's zero enjoyment behind the wheel. Other hybrids (including the new Prius C) are better in this regard, while the more composed ride quality and quieter cabins of the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid represent a much greater degree of refinement.
Another aspect to consider is price. Regular compact cars (either gasoline- or diesel-powered) get excellent fuel economy nowadays while costing much less, meaning the Prius might not produce the savings in fuel costs that you think it will. Still, the 2012 Toyota Prius continues to warrant its position as the quintessential hybrid. Its blend of fuel efficiency, practicality and now technology make it an easy choice among hybrids.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Toyota Prius is a four-door hatchback available in four trim levels: Two, Three, Four and Five. The latter is not to be confused with the Prius V, which is a larger wagon version of the Prius that's addressed in a separate review.
Standard equipment on the Prius Two includes 15-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, a rear window wiper, keyless ignition/entry, cruise control, automatic climate control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, a 60/40-split-folding rear seat, an advanced trip computer, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a touchscreen electronics interface and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.
The Prius Three gains an enhanced keyless entry system, a rearview camera, a navigation system, voice controls, satellite radio, HD radio and Toyota's Entune system, which includes real-time information (traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports scores) and a suite of apps that connect the car to Internet sites like Pandora, iHeart Radio and Open Table through your smartphone. The Solar Roof package adds a sunroof and a solar-powered ventilation system that keeps the car cool to limit the burden on the air-conditioning system.
The Prius Four has automatic headlights, an eight-way power driver seat, heated front seats, SofTex synthetic leather upholstery, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a JBL sound system with eight GreenEdge speakers. The Deluxe Solar Roof package adds everything from the Prius Three version plus a head-up display, Safety Connect emergency communications and an upgraded navigation system with a high-definition display and split-screen capability.
The Prius Five gets 17-inch alloy wheels, foglamps and LED headlamps with auto level control and washers. The Advanced Technology package adds adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision alert system, a lane-departure warning system, Safety Connect, a head-up display and the higher-quality navigation display.
Available on all trims, the Plus Appearance package adds unique 17-inch alloy wheels and a seven-piece aerodynamic body kit. To this the Plus Performance package adds a sport-tuned suspension and unique badging.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 Toyota Prius is powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine combined with a pair of electric motor/generators. Together they send a total output of 134 horsepower through a specialized continuously variable transmission (CVT).
In track testing, we clocked the Prius from zero to 60 mph in 10.1 seconds, which is about average for a hybrid vehicle. The EPA estimates the 2012 Prius will return a very impressive 51 mpg city/48 highway and 50 mpg combined. In real-world testing, we found these estimates to be reasonably accurate.
Every 2012 Toyota Prius comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag. The Prius Four and Five can be equipped with Toyota's Safety Connect emergency communications system. The Prius Five includes a pre-collision warning system and a lane-departure warning system.
In Edmunds brake testing, the Prius came to a stop from 60 in 118 feet — very good for a compact or midsize car.
In government crash tests, the Prius received a perfect five stars for overall protection, four stars for overall frontal protection and five stars for overall side protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Prius the highest possible rating of "Good" in its frontal-offset, side and roof strength tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2012 Prius features straightforward controls that jut out toward the driver in a "floating console" that provides a storage tray underneath. It's a nice design that helps maximize cabin space. The now-standard touchscreen operates an increased number of high-tech features for 2012 and for the most part is smartly designed. The digital instrument panel also features a floating layer that displays audio, temperature and trip computer information when the driver touches those controls on the steering wheel, minimizing eye movement. Some drivers might find the overall design a bit too busy-looking, however.
Materials quality in the Prius is disappointing, with harder and cheaper plastics than other cars in its price range. The corduroy-like texturing on the climate and audio controls seems nice at first, but collects oil from the skin and causes circular dark spots on most buttons.
In terms of versatility, though, the Prius is still a champ. The hatchback body style provides more cargo capacity than a typical midsize sedan, and the backseat offers plenty of space. Sadly, taller drivers still have to contend with a steering wheel that's placed too far away. There's a telescoping column, but it doesn't come out nearly far enough. On the upside, the Prius finally offers power front seats.
Acceleration in the 2012 Toyota Prius is far from sprightly, but it's on par for similarly priced hybrids and certainly adequate. Four driving modes -- Normal, Eco, Power and EV -- allow the pilot to decide the optimum powertrain configuration depending on conditions. Eco is measured and sluggish, but returns the best fuel economy. Power is useful for entering freeways or driving on hills. EV mode locks out the gasoline engine, but only up to 25 mph with at least a half-charged battery pack.
Around town, the Prius is an easy-to-drive runabout. The electric steering doesn't provide much feedback, but it's very light in parking lots and doesn't become overly boosted on the highway. The ride is comfortable, but nastier bumps can leave it a bit flummoxed. There is also an excessive amount of road noise that permeates the cabin regardless of speed, and the noises emitted by its smaller gasoline engine are hardly what we'd describe as serene.