Despite suffering through several recent disasters, both of its own making and at the hands of an angry Gaia, it appears that Toyota’s mojo remains intact.
Of course, Toyota’s mojo is very different than that of an automaker like Ferrari, Lamborghini or even General Motors. The Japanese giant is at its best when it sticks to designing fuel-efficient family cars targeted at the typical American family and its two point whatever children, not supercars or pickup trucks. Its latest effort is the distillation of this essence into a single car.
The Toyota Prius v is a no-brainer. Take the best-selling hybrid of all time – 52 percent of U.S. sales since the first gas-electric hit the market in 1999, according to Toyota – make it bigger and then . . . whatever the Japanese word is for “voila!” Longer, wider and taller than the hatchback, the “v” stands for “versatile,” not “voila” or the Latin number five, although it is more or less the fifth iteration to carry the Prius name.
As is the case with most car companies, Toyota avoids referring to the Prius v as a wagon, but that’s what it is. With a low seat height and ground clearance to match, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard as a crossover, even if it has more cargo room than many of them, not to mention 58 percent more than the standard Prius. Passenger space is up as well, particularly in the rear where the stretched wheelbase allows for a 60/40 split bench that can slide about 7 inches fore and aft and recline.
Like the exterior, the front cabin of the Prius v feels like familiar territory, but is entirely new. Toyota ditched the all-encompassing wraparound dash and center console of the Prius for a much more open layout with a pass-through between the seats. To keep it in the family, the speedometer remains top center, instead of in front of the driver. Below it is an enormous control panel that appears to be bursting out of the dashboard.
Depending on trim level – there are 3 available – and optional equipment installed, a 6- or 7-inch screen houses most of the infotainment functions. A single dial below it handles mode selection, fan speed and temperature for the climate control, and does a good job of it. Simplicity is a wonderful thing.
Conversely, the Prius v is also the first Toyota to offer its new cloud-based Entune system, which augments the in-car entertainment and navigation with apps for Pandora, MovieTickets.com and a number of other online services that work through a tethered smartphone. Increasingly inevitable distractions that Toyota tries to mitigate by blocking some functions on the move (don’t try to program a Michael Bolton station on Pandora unless you’re parked!) and allowing you use voice commands to operate them.
Speaking of movement, even though it is less aerodynamically efficient and 232 pounds heavier than the Prius, the Prius v uses the same Hybrid Synergy Drive package, which combines a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, a couple of electric motors and a continuously variable automatic transmission to deliver a grand total of 134 hp and tepid, but extremely economical performance.
How economical? The EPA rates the Prius v at 42 mpg combined, which is 16 percent less than the 50 mpg Prius, but still good enough to tie for third with the Lexus CT200h among non plug-in cars behind the Honda Civic Hybrid. On paper, 8 mpg sounds like a lot, but in this case it will only cost you about $200 more per year at the pump. That figure is more than offset by the added utility that comes with the Prius v.
It also provides a higher level of refinement. A stronger suspension and more rigid chassis collaborate with increased sound insulation to reduce noise levels in the cabin. Where the Prius often comes across as tinny, the Prius v is at a level most people would consider uncompromised. The motor still groans a bit when you have your foot down, but not quite as badly as before. Expect to see the improvements trickle down to the standard issue Prius when it gets a refresh in a year or so.
But it is the ride that impresses most when you set off in the Prius v. On the winding roads in and around Greenwich, Conn., where I spend the day driving it, the five-door remained flat without wallowing, yet supple enough to soak up big bumps and deep ditches without crashing onto its bump stops or rattling my fillings.
Further proof that there’s a spark of ingenuity left in the engineering department in Toyota City is a neat feature that uses the electric drive motor to cut down on the pitching and bouncing that cars often exhibit on undulating roads. The idea behind it is that when the front wheels roll over a bump they spin faster than the rear wheels, and vice versa, contributing to this “porpoising” motion. Adjust the speed a little and you can mitigate the effect. There’s no on/off switch, so it’s hard to say how well the system works, but based on how much better it rides than the standard Prius, I’ll believe that it does.
Further techie touches that play to the Prius faithful are non-toxic leatherette upholstery, an optional dynamic radar cruise control, semi-automated braking, self-parking and a vehicle proximity notification system that emits a low hum to alert pedestrians when the car is operating in all-electric mode. It can do that up to 25 mph for a maximum of one mile if there’s enough juice in the battery box. Less appealing is a beeper in the car that tells the driver when it is in reverse, but can’t be heard by those outside of the car.
Toyota is projecting that the Prius v will account for between 15-20 percent of overall Prius sales, which were 140K in 2010. This is either a sign of humility, or a grave miscalculation. Stereotypical Prius customers aren’t the type to worry about the stigma of owning a wagon -- you know a lot of them already have Subaru Outbacks parked next to their hybrids for soccer practice and family vacations. If the price is right, Toyota will sell as many of these as it can make. But there lies the mystery.
Due to supply issues caused by the aftermath of the Japan earthquake, the launch of the Prius v has been pushed to an amorphous date in the fall – no promises being made there. Pricing is also being kept under wraps for now, but, after a little pushing of my own, one Toyota rep indicated that it could end up being less than 10 percent more than a comparably equipped Prius, which starts at $24,280. Even if it's 20 percent, the folks at the Tsutsumi plant are going to be clocking a lot of overtime. If anyone should be worried, it’s the person in charge of that gas-guzzling, 33 mpg Camry Hybrid. In the world of practicality and petroleum parsimoniousness, the Prius v makes it look like Dr. Evil.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.