2012 Toyota Prius: The Only Sensible Hybrid?

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It’s hard to believe but the Toyota Prius has been around for a decade now. It is both the first successful mass-market hybrid and – by far – the best selling hybrid.

Arguably, because it’s the only hybrid that makes any sense.

Critics will say the car’s ongoing popularity is due mostly to greenie-geek posturing and there is some truth to this. But the Prius can make a solid case for itself – on the merits, not just the image – and I think that’s what accounts for its enduring success more than anything else.

WHAT IT IS

The Prius is Toyota’s hybrid gas-electric hatchback sedan. It’s been in continuous production since the 2001 model year. The current version is roughly mid-sized, bigger than a Corolla and just a bit smaller overall than a Camry. Five trims (I -V) are available, with a starting price of $22,120 for the economy-minded I. A top-of-the-line V has an MSRP of $28,790.

There are several other hybrids on the market, including the Ford Fusion hybrid and the Honda Civic hybrid – but they’re either not as efficient or a lot more expensive (sometimes both) and besides, the iconic Prius continues to be in a class by itself – like Coke or Elvis.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

The hatchback sedan received a total makeover in 2010, so the 2012 will be mostly a carryover. However, something is afoot at the Circle K. A sporty (and smaller) Prius c (for “city centric”) hatchback sedan with a lower price tag (reportedly under $20k) and higher fuel economy will be added to the lineup in spring 2012. A wagon version of the standard-sized Prius will also be available.

WHAT’S GOOD

Low price/high economy equals a hybrid that makes economic sense.

Peppier than you’d expect.

Seamless transition from battery to IC engine power.

Ten-year track record. We know this car is reliable.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Hybrids still not as good on gas as they could be.

Gas mileage of some non-hybrid IC cars is approaching real-world mileage of hybrids.

Ear-splitting back-up buzzer needs an “off” switch.

UNDER THE HOOD

All Prius trims come with the same drivetrain: a 1.8 liter gas engine teamed up with a pair of electric motors and a battery pack. Combined output is a claimed 134 hp, enough to get the Prius to 60 in about 10 seconds flat.

A CVT automatic transmission is standard equipment.

All versions are front-wheel-drive.

The window sticker says the Prius is capable of 51 city and 48 highway – making it (by far) the most fuel-efficient thing on four wheels you can buy. For some perspective, the similar-in-size Ford Fusion hybrid (which starts at $28,600) manages just 41 city and only 38 on the highway. The $23,950 Honda Civic hybrid is also more expensive – and a physically smaller car – yet only gives you 44 city/44 highway.

Even the wretched little (not-so-smart) Smart car – a two-seater that could probably fit in the Prius’ trunk – only gets 33 city and 44 highway.

On fuel economy, nothing can touch the Prius that isn’t also a motorcycle or a scooter.

ON THE ROAD

Toyota has infused the Prius with enough power (on demand) to give it acceptable acceleration when you need it – along with exceptional economy almost all the time.

Zero to 60 in 10 seconds is actually better performance than several current-year economy cars deliver. But the key point, not often mentioned in most reviews, is that the Prius’ highway mileage (a hybrid weak point, historically) is nearly 10 MPG better than the original 2001 model’s – and as good (or better) than comparable diesel-powered cars can achieve.

The early Prius just barely crested 40 MPG – and that was the best-case scenario, meaning driven with an eggshell under the accelerator and at least 10 MPH slower than the flow of traffic. If you kept up with traffic, your real-world mileage would be in the low-mid 30s, nothing especially spectacular. The current Prius can do much better, though you still need to drive it just right to maximize its potential.

Toyota helps you to do this in several ways. The first is via driver-adjustable powertrain settings. Choose “Eco” mode to rely less on the gas side of the powertrain – and to switch on engine/transmission calibrations that make the most of the gas side when it’s running. Or, at speeds up to about 30 MPH, select “EV” mode – which cuts off the gas engine entirely and lets the car operate solely on its batteries. There’s also a digital bar graph display you can call up that lets you monitor economy from minute to minute, or in 5-10-15 minute intervals. Do it right and you can indeed meet or even beat the published mileage figures. I recorded highs of 52 MPG, driving to maximize economy by keeping a light right foot and, as much as possible, maintaining a steady speed without too much hard braking or acceleration. It’s actually fun to use the instruments to make the most of the Prius’ economy capabilities.

And even when driven not so economically – on the highway at 70-ish MPH – the Prius still pulled consistent high 30s/low 40s, which is right there with a current diesel-powered car like the $23,965 VW Jetta TDI (42 highway). And while the diesel Jetta is efficient on the highway, in stop-and-go city driving, it only rates 30 MPG – 21 MPG less than the Prius. It also costs about $1,800 more to buy the Jetta TDI.

The Toyota’s CVT automatic is operated via a futuristic (but not awkward to use) toggle on the center console. There is no physical sensation of putting the car “into” Drive or Reverse. To engage Park, you press a button and the transmission does that automatically. It’s very video game-like, but works as well as a conventional shift lever with a physical (cable) connection to the transmission. The silent drive (at start-up) does take a little getting used to, if you’re not familiar with the operating characteristics of hybrid vehicles. You get used to it quickly, though – and otherwise the car is as simple/easy to drive as a standard car. With one exception. Toyota fits the Prius with a god-awful, piercingly loud back-up buzzer that comes on whenever you put the toggle selector in Reverse. Perhaps the thinking is that because the Prius is often silent when operating at low speeds, a buzzer is necessary to alert pedestrians. I can see that, I guess. But the buzzer assaults the driver/occupants of the Prius, inside the cabin. It is maddening – and arguably, very distracting and thus potentially dangerous. This is the only thing about the Prius I personally could not live with. An off switch for this buzzer is an essential that’s not there.

AT THE CURB

The Prius continues to tout its hybridness via its unusual appearance. For many buyers – whether they admit it or not – this is part of the appeal. Everyone knows the Prius is a hybrid and this scores points in today’s “be green to be cool” culture. And really, it’s no different in concept than buying a BMW or Cadillac for the curb appeal those brands come with.

The inside of the Prius is as distinctive as the outside. Directly ahead of the driver, there’s nothing but dashboard. The gauge cluster – all digital – is centered in the middle of the dash and recessed deeply into a nacelle. There aren’t individual gauges as such. It’s a flat panel LCD multi-function screen that can be toggled through different displays, including the “power flow” monitor that shows you whether you are operating on the gas engine by itself, with an assist from the electric motors, or on electric-battery power only.

Another unusual feature is the little vent mounted on the lower rear seatback that you may hear “inhaling” sometimes. This is a cooling vent for the hybrid battery pack, which is located underneath the rear seats.

Front and rear seat head and legroom is generous and a virtual dead heat with the much more expensive (and less fuel efficient) Ford Fusion hybrid, as well as the more expensive and also less fuel-efficient Honda Civic hybrid. All three have about 42 inches of front seat legroom, almost 39 inches of front seat headroom and about 38 inches of rear seat headroom. The Ford does have about 3/4 of an inch more backseat legroom (36.7 inches vs. 36.0). But the Prius punches back with a much bigger trunk – 21.6 cubic feet vs. 11.8 for the Fusion and even less (10.7 cubic feet) for the Civic hybrid. Both of the latter are conventional sedans with conventional trunks while the Prius is a hatchback sedan. The hatchback layout lets you expand the total available cargo area to almost 40 cubic feet while the Fusion’s max is 11.8 cubic feet.

The “floating” center console is stylistically interesting but can make getting at the storage area (and 12V powerpoint) underneath the main shelf awkward sometimes. Getting at the power point, in particular, is something you learn to do by feel rather than sight. The flip-open cupholders are pretty cool, though.

THE REST

Toyota gets it. Which is why people buy the Prius.

It is the only hybrid that doesn’t cost significantly more than a comparable-in-size economy sedan (unlike, for example, the $28k Ford Fusion hybrid) yet it gets much better mileage than a conventional economy sedan. That makes it make sense. The GM Volt is a $41,000 vehicle. Absurd. Even with a $7,000 tax deduction, it still costs as much as entry-luxury cars such as a Lexus ES350 or BMW 3 series. People who are concerned about the cost of fuel do not buy $41,000 (or $31,000) cars. The Volt may be many things – some of them good. But it does not make sense. Not as economy-minded transportation. The Prius does. Hence, it sells.

Another thing: We have a ten-year track record to refer to. The Prius has proved itself to be reliable and durable. It is common to see the older models still in use, no apparent major problems with either the electric motors or the electric batteries. It’s not unreasonable or pie-in-the-sky to anticipate getting 10 or more useful years of service out of a new Prius – which adds to the car’s commonsense appeal. If you average roughly 10 MPG better in a Prius over that period vs. what you’d have gotten in an otherwise similar sedan, you will have saved a large amount of money that you’d have otherwise spent on fuel. The key is (in my opinion) to buy the $22k Prius I and skip the more luxury-minded higher-trims… if your goal is to save money, which is really the only sensible reason to buy a hybrid anyhow. You can’t get factory GPS in the base I and II versions, but – so what? Aftermarket GPS units do the same thing, cost a lot less and can be used in multiple vehicles, too. The I (and II) trims come with all the necessaries, including power windows, locks and AC. It’s nice that Toyota offers equipment such as heated leather seats, 17 inch wheels, automated parking assist, JBL premium stereo and auto-leveling lights on the higher III, IV and V trims – but, again, if the whole point of the exercise is to save money, why would you buy all that stuff?

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Prius is still the pick of the hybrid litter – and maybe the only hybrid car that makes any sense.

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  19 comments for “2012 Toyota Prius: The Only Sensible Hybrid?

  1. Swamprat
    August 31, 2011 at 3:43 am

    I drove one of those electrical contraptions and was only able to get 35 mpg. I would never buy this electric pregnant rollerskate.

    • August 31, 2011 at 9:50 am

      I’m not a big fan of hybrids, but the Prius is the only one that doesn’t cost a ridiculous amount of money – $22k sticker, to start – and does get pretty decent mileage – and so, can make economic sense if most of your driving is done in stop-and-go-type conditions, where the hybrid does best. Would I personally buy one? No! But I would not buy anything new, hybrid or not. I think the smart way to save money on driving is not to fixate so much on the cost of fuel. There are so many other factors – including the high purchase price of new cars, the cost to insure a new car, taxes, etc. Why buy a new $22k Prius (plus taxes, plus insurance) when you can buy a perfectly nice used economy sedan for half that amount (with lower insurance and taxes)? You just saved at least $12,000 right there, which would take years to make up in the Prius, if you ever did make it up.

      My take: If you have to have a new car, then you really aren’t interested in saving money and “saving gas” is just a rationalization.

      Good to see you here, amigo – what do you think of the layout?

  2. Jack M
    August 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Another excellent article,Eric,but I would like to add my two cents
    since I own a 2010 basic Prius without frills and have logged 27,00
    miles on it after two great years of owning the vehicle.Since I liv
    in rural Central Florida,my driving entails 60% 55mph limit state
    roads and 40% 35-40mph neighborhood roads for the most part.If I drive in a normal manner,I get 55-57mpg actual,though the computer
    reads invariably 5% more mpg.If I drive conservatively,I achieve 60-62 mpg actual, driving the same route.Keep in mind the terrain here is flat and the engine doesn’t take long to warm up.When I do similar driving in upstate N.Y where it’s a little hilly and the fall temperatures average 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit,the car gets
    52-53mpg.So it’s a matter of temperature and terrain ,I guess, that
    affects all mpg measures.
    Traveling up I-75 and I-81 I average just about 52 mpg actual at speeds between 65-70mph.This differs from the figures in the article,but I imagine the mileage would be less if I drove up there during the winter and at higher speeds.
    The buzzing sound that occurs when the CVT is in reverse is a
    real pain(I hate it),but you need it in a shopping center.The visibility from both the front and back,especially the latter,is
    a slight negative,so it’s a challenge when backing up.
    Some auto mags claims that the Prius accelerates to 60 mph under 10 seconds.I wonder if they used the ‘Power Button’ in
    accelerating.The Button allows the electric motor and the gas
    engine to work in synch.Up to 40mph the car rocks and then the
    electric motor cuts out.I’ll bet the 0-60 time is closer to
    8-8.5 seconds.
    The Prius really handles well on winding roads due to it’s
    aerodynamic features and the resale value is excellent,probably
    one of the best in the auto industry.

    • August 31, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks, Jack!

      I think the mileage disparity arises from the things you mention – temperature and altitude/terrain. Still, I was very impressed by the real world mileage I got, given how I drive. I don’t doubt that 60 MPG is possible, given the right conditions/driving style. The only thing I didn’t like was that %$#@! buzzer! I can see the justification if it’s outside the vehicle – to alert others to the car’s presence. But inside the cabin? Why? It’d be the first thing I unplugged (or smashed) if I bought a new Prius!

      • Jack M
        August 31, 2011 at 6:56 pm

        Placing the buzzer outside the cabin is a good idea though it might give someone a heart attack.I think I’ll have my hearing checked the next time I’m at the quack’s.

        • August 31, 2011 at 7:28 pm

          Inside the cabin it gives me a heart attack!

          Seriously, though – what possible reason is there for a loud buzzer that comes on inside the car when you put the transmission into reverse? It doesn’t alert pedestrians to the presence of the Prius (you can barely hear it outside the car if the windows are up). I know I’ve put the car in reverse. All the buzzer does is add a distraction to the process of trying to back-up or parallel park. It’s got to go!

          • dom
            September 1, 2011 at 1:14 am

            HA.. That is really dumb! Wow..

  3. SojournerMoon
    September 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    When compared to other hybrids, yes, it seems to be one of the better ones. But when compared to a normal gas, or better yet, a diesel powered economy car, it begins to lose a lot of its appeal. I’ll qualify this, though, in that most of my experience has been with the first-gen Prius.

    To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use hybrid technology in a small car. You get to improve fuel economy by 10-15mpg but at the cost of adding about $8-12k in the price vs. an otherwise comparable non-hybrid. Going from 40mpg to 50mpg is nice, but it’s not really going to save you that much money in fuel, especially over the life of the car, and nowhere near enough to pay for the difference in cost. It is purely for the faux-image of “green.” I say faux because it requires a lot more manufacturing input and energy, greenhouse gases, etc. to build a hybrid than to build a regular dinosaur-burner. The components in the batteries alone make it one of the most toxic cars on the road. If that is truly one’s concern, then this is clearly not the car for you.

    As for reliability, most of the people I know that have the original (probably about 5 people) have all had trouble with the battery system getting worn down and either have to replace it, for a lot of money, or essentially watch the car convert itself into an overweight gas-powered economy car. The rest of the car is typical Toyota reliable, which is good (they got a bad rap for their recent troubles, IMO). The battery packs just don’t seem to have much more than 3-5 years of life in them, with some notable exceptions.

    Jack seems to be the exception, in my experience, about getting mpg figures anywhere close to, much less exceeding EPA estimates. Of course that’s based on my experience with the older ones, too. It was unusual to be able to get the rated economy out of a 1st gen Prius unless you drove it very cloverly (to steal your term). I had heard, and assume it has come to pass, that the EPA was going to rework their mileage tests for hybrid vehicles to better reflect real-world economy because the original test tended to favor hybrids excessively. If Jack’s experience is representative of most folks with the current Prius, I’m very pleased.

    As for the backup buzzer, I believe it is the mating call of the AlGoreans. It is designed to arouse the tree-hugging alarmists and draw attention to the large butt on the car.

    If you HAVE to drive a hybrid, I guess the Prius isn’t as bad as most. But that’s a bit like saying if you HAVE to have cancer. . .

    • Jack M
      September 3, 2011 at 5:45 pm

      The new generation Prius of 2010 purportedly had many new patents filed to improve performance and reliability.Also,the car’s weight was reduced to 2900 lbs. and Toyota insists that you use 0-20w oil,which reduces friction and improves mileage.I’m not familiar with the older generation mileage figures,but I think those cars were a couple hundred pounds heavier.
      The life of the nickel cadmium batteries are all over the lot.I’ve seen figures ranging from 140,000 miles to 320,000 miles.Replacement costs vary from $3500 to $5000.Toyota guarantees the batteries for 8 years or 120,000 miles,whichever comes first.
      Speaking of diesels,I owned a 1984 Toyota Corolla diesel up
      until 1999,when I donated it to charity with only 54,000 miles on it.I used it for a station car and got about 38 mpg in
      my daily 3 mile round trip to the railroad station.On the highway,it got a touch over 50 mpg at 60-65 mph.The car weighed 2600 lbs.and was a real dog zero to sixty.Another negative with
      this car was the cost for a fuel pump.Mine started to leak in
      1999 and Toyota wanted $600 for a new one.With the car only worth about a grand,I decided to give it away and told the Charity about the pump.They still accepted it.
      One has to factor in replacement costs for parts when buying
      alternative cars.Some of the Prius’s sensors retail at over
      $1000.I’ve read that mandatory changes of the TDI Jetta’s
      filters at 50,000 miles costs about $500 at a dealer.My guess is that the emission requirements do add to maintenance costs for diesels.The Prius’s maintenance requirements are unbelievably inexpensive if one does their own oil changes up
      until 60,000 miles,when you have to change all the fluids.The
      big hit is the battery pack assuming nothing major goes wrong
      to the car.This Prius I own is almost bullet-proof and loves
      hot weather.

      • September 4, 2011 at 10:39 am

        I’d still like to see them cut the weight or use a diesel instead of a gas engine for the IC side of the powertrain – which I’m betting would result in a 60-plus MPG vehicle.

  4. Daryl
    September 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Eric, you didn’t mention that you have two power plant with this or any other hybrid. Hence, two things that detoriate over time and use. The battery will wear out, and the gas engine still needs to have the timing belt or chain, power pump, radiator work etc.? so in reality, the money just saved from using less fuel, can go towards the maint. of the two power plants. In the end, save your money from the fuel because you will need it to spend on the hybrid battery and normal gas engine normal maint.

    • September 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm

      Hi Daryl,

      True! I personally would rather just drive a $15k standard car (heck, for about $10k, you can buy a new Nissan Versa sedan) and run the risk that gas might get up to $10 or so per gallon in the next few years – that being the only way a Prius or any other hybrid makes any financial sense, as I do the math…

  5. Rurlndum
    September 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Glad the Prius is fuel efficient. It has to be to make up for a burned out headlamp bulb that costs $200.00.

    Not sure that this is an economical car to drive.

    • September 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Rur,

      Yes, true – but equally true of all new cars. They’ve done away with easily/cheaply replaceable sealed beams (and increasingly, bulbs). Instead, we now have projector beam and HID “assemblies” that can cost a lot more than $200 to replace.

      Last year, a deer ran in front of my Nissan Frontier and took out the passenger-side fender and the passenger side headlight “assembly.” The “assembly” cost more than an entire new front fender!

  6. John D
    January 31, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Eric, Despite your dim view of hybrids, do you see any positives with the Camry XLE Hybrid vs XLE v6? such as the fact that it doesn’t use belts anymore? Thanks

    • February 2, 2012 at 11:42 am

      Hi John,

      A lot of this is subjective … Personally, I’d choose the four-cylinder Camry over either the hybrid or the V-6. Much less expensive, still gets pretty good gas mileage – and it’s certainly powerful enough for everyday driving.

  7. dan
    October 9, 2012 at 12:16 am

    Eric –
    Great article. I’ve got a 2005 Prius with 160,000 miles on it and love it. It doesn’t get quite as good mileage as the newer models, but gets in the range of 45-50 overall. I generally get as good or better mileage on the highway as around town. BTW, the backup buzzer can be annoying, but if you check on the various Prius forums there is a way to disable it if you want to. Of course, Toyota probably doesn’t want you to do that as they think it’s a safety feature — I guess they want you to know you’re going backwards rather than forwards. Unlike a large truck, it doesn’t help anyone outside the vehicle since you can only hear it inside. Overall, I would buy another Prius, and probably will if this one ever wears out. So far no major maintenance issues. The battery is still going strong.

    • October 9, 2012 at 12:18 am

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks!

      And: I just posted a review of the new plug-in version. It’s here: http://ericpetersautos.com/2012/10/08/2013-plug-in-prius/

      Be curious to have your feedback….

      • dan
        October 9, 2012 at 12:57 am

        I already read that post, and thought it was great. I would definitely consider the new plug-in when we’re ready to buy another Prius. I’m hoping that the batteries improve as time goes by, which will help with the cost equation. The cost to drive on electricity is much lower than gasoline, so if you don’t need to go that far, it works out well.

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