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Many more choices in hybrid segment today, but one model continues to rule

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2014 Prius v

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Even with so many manufacturers joining the hybrid market in recent years and with Toyota sticking gas-electric power trains in virtually every model it produces, the king of the segment remains Toyota’s Prius.

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It wasn’t the first of the current phase in the U.S. -- Honda brought its two-door Insight here in 1999, a year before Prius’ arrival -- but it is often the first that comes to mind when you think of hybrids.

Over a decade later, it continues to thrive with its three different versions -- the traditional Prius Liftback and the more recently introduced Prius c and Prius v -- accounting for three of the top five spots in hybrid sales in the country, according to the website hybridcars.com.

Meanwhile, Honda has announced it is taking the Insight out of production.

There are understandable reasons for the success of the Prius and the demise of the Insight.

Even the early Prius offered more in the way of accommodations than the Insight, which was a two-seater and offered air-conditioning as an option when it was first was shown on our shores. It was more of a novelty, not much in the way of a practical vehicle.

When it came to styling, both the Prius and Insight were in the funky mode, but the Insight was really out there, taking styling cues from 1950s Nash Ramblers with its covered rear wheels.

Toyota also has continued to tinker and update the Prius portfolio. It was changed from a sedan to a hatchback early on. The smaller Prius c (for city) and the slightly larger Prius v (for versatility) were introduced for the 2011 model year.

The Prius also eventually commanded a big advantage in fuel consumption over the Insight, which is rated at 42 miles-per-gallon overall to its chief competitor Prius c’s 50 mpg.

So it’s easy to see why the Prius came out ahead of the Insight.

What’s not as clear, however, is how the Prius manages to thrive when so many other competitors have put hybrid drivetrains in what one may consider “real” cars.

To name just a few, Ford is on board with a hybrid version of the Fusion, Chevy with the Malibu and Impala, Hyundai with the Sonata, Kia with the Optima, and Volkswagen with the Jetta -- all possessing many of the same styling attributes as their standard-powered counterparts. Luxury automakers like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz also produce hybrid models.

And Toyota has hybrid drivetrains in just about everything in its lineup, including Camry and Avalon sedans and Highlander and RAV4 SUVs (or crossovers, if you prefer), plus several Lexus sedans and SUVs.

Though your taste preference may vary, those vehicles all surpass the Prius in looks and appearance. In fact, if you squint a bit, you may come to the realization that the rear end of the Prius v bears a striking resemblance to the much-maligned (and late) Pontiac Aztek.

Yet if you would have an Aztek in your driveway, chances are your neighbors are going to be laughing behind your back (14-year-olds excepted). Show up with a Prius v and you’ll get creds for being environmentally responsible and frugal.

The Prius v does offer good mileage, of course. Its combined rating is 42 mpg with the difference between city (44 mpg) and highway (40 mpg) negligible -- which is typical of the genre.

But you’re going to pay for that in power. The Prius v’s 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine and electric motor delivers a combined 134 horsepower. The only transmission offered is a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Forget about zero-to-60 mph times. Just count one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, etc. and you’ll find yourself up to at least one-thousand-ten before you’re out of the 50-mph range.

There are four driving modes. In addition to the standard (normal), there are Eco for even more enhanced fuel savings (and less power) and Power for a recognizable step up in performance (but reduced mileage). And there is an EV mode that puts the Prius v under battery power, though only at low speeds for up to a mile. (Hope you have a short commute to work!)

If not particularly sharp off the line, the Prius v is a comfortable highway cruiser, much more so than the smaller Prius c. It kind of gives you the feel that you are traveling faster than you actually are, which may help you slip by those state troopers sitting on the side of the road with their radar guns.

The Prius v’s biggest advantage over its brethren is in storage. Capacity behind the rear seats is 34.3 cubic feet. That nearly doubles with the second row folded to 67.3 cubic feet, though the seats don’t flatten out.

Maximum cargo capacity in the standard Prius Liftback, meanwhile, is 39.6 cubic feet or 21.6 with all seats in place. The Prius c, designed for urban use, is even smaller with a cargo volume of 17.1 cubic feet.

Among the most annoying aspects to the Prius v, and other Prius models, for that matter, is the placement of the instrument panels and controls. They sit off in the center of the dashboard with the speedometer’s digital readout in a horizontal slot at the top of the panel. At night, if you happen to glance down at where the gauges would normally be, you see nothing but darkness, which can be unsettling.

The gear lever sticks out from the center stack. You move it through a groove to the left and up or down to select Drive or Reverse, and it pops back into place once you select your desired gear. You can push a button to put it in part, a nice feature.

The cabin itself is not what you would call “spartan,” but it is on the plain side. The placement of the gauges in the center of the dashboard contributes to that impression. The quality of the materials could be better also.

There are several nooks and storage bins, however, and the Prius v comes with a wealth of technological features with Toyota’s Entune system providing access to navigation, entertainment, and information services.

There are two things, however, that are likely to grind on you. One is the beep that sounds when the Prius v is in reverse. No amount of adjusting seems to eliminate it, even finding “beeper” in the setup menu and turning it off.

The other is the low whine you get from hybrid power trains as you come to a stop. It’s not quite as pronounced as former models, it seems, or maybe you just get used it. It’s kind of like the sigh a tired person emits as he or she plops down in an easy chair.

Pricing for the Prius v Two starts at $27,560, including destination and delivery charges. That’s about $2,500 more than the Prius Hatchback and $7,700 more than the base Prius c.

For a quick look and more details on the Prius v, check out the accompanying slide show.

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