2012 Toyota Prius V

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2012 Prius V is a rather brilliant idea. Our biggest question after a day of driving did not involve Toyota's newest hybrid, but what took the world's gas-mileage leader so long to build this vehicle?

After more than a decade in the U.S. and now into its third generation, the Prius is the world's best selling hybrid, capable in its sedan/hatch format of 50 mpg in combined city/highway driving. But the standard Prius has size constraints that may prevent a family of four or five from considering the fuel-efficient vehicle.

The Prius V quite handily takes care of that problem with 34 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat and a rather massive 67 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. That's as much as a Ford Escape, more than Nissan Rouge and just a few cubes short of the Honda CR-V.

But the Prius V is not a crossover and it's not a small minivan. It just hauls as much stuff in a more efficient manner. Perhaps the surprising thing is that it still drives and performs much like the Prius. If you didn't know the extra space was behind you, you would be astonished to find that you were not behind the wheel of a 2011 Prius.

With a slightly higher roofline (3.3 inches) the V offers exceptional headroom, and with a three-inch longer wheelbase it affords passenger stretch-out room in the back seat.  And for long-distance comfort, the back seats can be moved fore and aft and the seatbacks can be reclined.

Toyota, probably not wanting a station wagon tag put the V in the name. The V of course stands for versatility.

But there are a couple of downsides. With more weight and slightly less aerodynamic qualities, the V is slightly slower than the standard Prius. The V comes with the familiar Prius 1.8-liter gas engine/electric motor combination making a combined 134 horsepower.

And with the weight comes a fall-off in gas mileage. But we consider mileage ratings of 44 mpg city and 40 mpg highway to be a downside only when measured against the Prius. On one 30-mile loop in the Charlotte metropolitan area we squeezed out 47 mpg without holding up traffic.

With that still excellent gas mileage combined with its new size and shape we can easily visualize the V as a huge new entry in the eco-livery segment. The operator of an eco-limo service known solely as “Y” in Los Angeles who currently uses the Prius sedan usually finds herself with only one passenger. It’s a sure bet with the new V she’ll have the capacity to carry as many as four passengers and with room for the luggage. The V could be the new face of airport limos.

Prices have not been announced, but we were assured by Toyota officials that the V will be priced close to the Prius, perhaps a grand more. If that's the case, the V will fly off dealer lots when it arrives early this fall.

— Jim Meachen