2012 Prius: Runaway winner in the high-efficiency race
The 2012 Toyota Prius is an exceptionally efficient car at a relatively low price for people who care more about conservation than the act of driving. Given its success, the formula seems to have worked just fine.
Mechanically, the Prius is unchanged for 2012, though there have been cosmetic tweaks to the front bumper, headlights and taillights.
The fact that Toyota has sold more than a million Prius hybrids in the U.S. in the past decade is no accident. That they still make up about half of all hybrids sold — out of a couple dozen models — is likewise not a coincidence. This most recognized and recognizable hybrid's success stems from a combination of ultra-high mileage and a reasonable price.
The base sticker for the Prius Two trim level has risen to $24,765 (all prices cited include destination charges), but its 50 mpg in combined driving is untouchable for any car without a power plug. The 2011 Honda Insight hybrid starts at $19,290, yet its estimated 41 mpg trails even the previous-generation Prius' 46 mpg. Similarly, despite a redesign and mileage boost for the 2012 model year, the Honda Civic Hybrid achieves an estimated 44 mpg for $24,990.
Throw in the fact that the Prius' interior volume makes it a midsize car while those other two are compacts, and I'm ready to declare no contest and pull the Hondas out of the ring before they get hurt. Note that 2012 brings another, more-competitive option in the form of a redesigned Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan, which boasts improved mileage as high as 43/39 mpg in the base model, which is priced at $26,785.
The Prius is phenomenal in the most literal sense: It's a phenomenon. The car polarizes people, and, frankly, so do many of its owners. It dragged other automakers into an undertaking in which they saw no business case; many remain bearish on a design that employs both petroleum and electric drivetrains, which the conventional wisdom deems unsustainably expensive. Yet here Toyota is, more than 11 years into the endeavor and with plans to hybridize all its models by 2020, with the possible exception of pickup trucks.
The Prius Could Be Better
Could the Prius be better? Absolutely. For every person who likes how the Prius stands out, there has to be at least one who finds its styling unacceptably awkward. More compelling styling wouldn't hurt, but the aspect where the Prius really falls short is in the driving experience — most of it.
Prius owners love their hybrids with a freakish passion, but whatever it is they enjoy about the cars, it can't be the actual driving. They either don't notice, don't care or are willing to sacrifice in exchange for the car's undeniable appeal. There's nothing wrong with any of that.
More discerning — or perhaps just pickier — drivers will find fault. At the top of the list is the Prius' braking: I have no reason to suspect that the car won't stop safely, but the pedal feel is numb and the effect nonlinear, making the brakes difficult to modulate. All hybrids and electrics employ regenerative braking, which uses the drive motors as generators to recharge their battery packs. This recoups energy for reuse, and it means the conventional brake pads don't contact the discs except under heavier braking. There are two side effects: The pedal feels unnatural, and the transition from regenerative to friction braking can be awkward.