Toyota's expansion of its Prius nameplate has continued with the new Prius V. David Thomson surprises himself with his verdict after a week behind the wheel.
Let's face it, most car writers are in the business because they are car nuts, with motoring souls stirred most strongly by cars that are entertaining to drive.
Now let's think about two types of vehicle that typically fail the keen drivers' acid test: the people-mover and the hybrid. To profess a liking for either is generally taken as evidence that an enthusiast has had the last ounce of petrol drained from his/her veins.
The Prius V is a seven-seater people-mover that deploys the latest of Toyota's evolving hybrid technology, so when I found myself enjoying a week behind the wheel of such a vehicle, what is the reader supposed to think?
Don't worry unduly, because the last thing I am going to pretend is that the Prius V is a cracking great drive. But, perhaps because it sits on a much modified (as in wider, higher and longer in length and wheelbase) version of the Prius hatch platform, with the battery pack centrally located, it is a well-mannered steer, especially when judged against its people-mover peers.
Nor is it the last word in styling elegance, for when it comes to that prime people-mover requirement of providing space, the best one can hope for is what you see here; cunning swoops and curves of the stylist's pen that - through echoing elements of the standard Prius - disguise the fact that the core design constraint for a people-mover is the geometrical form of a large rectangular box.
Toyota has been clever at a more fundamental level, too, with the Prius V, combining a vehicle type and technology type that have little instinctive driver appeal to produce something that is much more than the sum of its parts.
So why has it taken the best part of 15 years for Toyota to make what now seems like a very obvious connection? Well, the early (late 1990s) hybrid powertrains were not very space-efficient and their cost of production was high. Both of these factors counted against the early use of such technologies for a people-mover, as did the fact that to popularise hybrids, Toyota needed a car with a great enough point of visual difference to stand out from the pack.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Toyota alone has sold well over three million hybrids worldwide, making them an accepted part of the automotive landscape. Battery technology has also evolved, the significant development being a compact lithium ion battery pack in place of the bulkier nickel hydride units used in the normal Prius and baby Prius C.
The new lithium ion system is compact enough to fit under the car's centre console, rather than the previous locations of the boot floor or under the rear seats.
The new battery system aside, the Prius V employs tried and true hybrid technology. Its 27kW/207Nm electric system combines with a 73kW/142Nm 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine to drive the front wheels via a multi-stage continuously variable transmission.
This powertrain delivers decent performance, with the caveat that the system must be worked fairly hard to maintain speed on steep hills, and hen thus extended, the car's petrol engine sounds raucous. Otherwise, the Prius V is commendably quiet.
A combined cycle fuel-consumption figure of 4.1 litres per 100km is excellent for a seven-seater. Drivesouth could not match that return on test, but the Prius V produced a fine 6.2-litre per 100km result for an efficiency sapping drive over mainly urban and steep-hilled open roads.
Boot and passenger space measure up well, but, like many people-movers, boot capacity (200 litres) is tight with the third row of seats up. There's also an additional 60-litre underfloor boot space, made available by fitting this car with an emergency tyre repair kit rather than a spare.
Fold the rear pair of seats flat to the floor, and the Prius V becomes a five-seater wagon with a solid 505-litre luggage capacity. The second row of seats adjusts individually for and aft and for rake, which provides ample scope to meet the needs of various mixes of adults and children.
Entry to the Prius V club opens at $50,990, but the variant supplied for appraisal was the flagship $65,490 i-Tech.
That extra $14,500 nets much fancy kit beyond mere hybrid technology. Among the more interesting items are Toyota's first transparent polycarbonate roof (in a fixed panoramic sunroof configuration), satellite navigation, adaptive radar cruise control, a pre-crash safety system, automatic parking, and faux leather upholstery.
You can also tick off a head-up display, heated seats, dual-zone climate, Bluetooth, headlight washers, an uprated eight-speaker audio system, smart-key entry, and a swag of airbags.
Those coming to the Prius V from the regular people-mover world may find the car's digital displays, power-use graphics and sophisticated trip computer and fuel-consumption tracking systems unusual. These, however, are Prius hybrid standards such as the ability to select between EV (full electric), eco and power modes for everyday driving.
So really, what we have here is a Prius all grown up, and made highly practical, both through being wrapped in a new and substantially larger body, and by a further evolution of the battery technology that is so crucial to the future of the hybrid car.
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