2012 Toyota Prius Review and Prices

Last Updated: May 18, 2012

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2012 Toyota Prius Buying Advice

The 2012 Toyota Prius is the best hybrid for you if you’re thrilled to get 50 mpg without plugging one in -- and the equivalent of 95 mpg if you do.

The 2012 Toyota Prius lineup adds the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid model, which taps a wall socket to extend the car’s electric-only range to 11 miles from the standard Prius’s 1 mile. All 2012 Prius models also get some cosmetic tweaks and expanded connectivity features. The Prius and Prius Plug-in Hybrid share a four-door hatchback body, and both combine gas and electric power. But exploiting an initial battery charge from the power grid, the plug-in model can go much further on electricity alone before the gas engine kicks in, earning it a 95 mpg-equivalent rating over that distance. It is, however, priced several thousand dollars higher than the standard Prius. The standard Prius is already world’s best selling hybrid and the 2012 additions mark the first notable changes since this third-generation design bowed in model-year 2010.

Should you buy a 2012 Toyota Prius or wait for the 2013 Toyota Prius? Buy a 2012 Prius if you fancy the standard model. Its 2013 counterpart won’t change significantly, although it almost certainly will cost more. Wait for the 2013 Prius if you want the Plug-in Hybrid and don’t live in one of the 14 coastal states picked by Toyota to get the car first. The 2012-model Prius Plug-in Hybrid is available in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.

2012 Toyota Prius Changes back to top

Styling: The 2012 Toyota Prius styling is updated with reshaped headlamps and taillamps and a new front fascia and bumper. The changes are minor but do create a subtly smoother look. Distinguishing the Plug-in Hybrid from the standard Prius are chrome trim on the grille, bumper, and door handles, unique alloy wheels, blue-accented headlamps, different taillamp lens, and specific badges.  

Unchanged is the basic profile Toyota unveiled with the 2010 Prius, a larger and more powerful replacement for the 2004-2009 second-generation model. Since then, the automaker has introduced the smaller Prius c (city) model and the larger Prius v (versatility) station wagon. The 2012 Prius standard model and Prius Plug-in Hybrid reviewed here are five-passenger, four-door hatchbacks compact-car sized outside but nearly midsize-car spacious inside. And with cargo volume of almost 40 cubic feet, they’re as versatile as many small wagons.

Aerodynamics set the styling theme. For the driver, however, the radically laid-back windshield creates a sense of disassociation from the road ahead. And the horizontal bar that separates the steeply sloped rear window from the vertical glass panel below is an annoying obstruction to visibility. But a tall ceiling creates large doorways and chair-like seating with plenty of head room front and rear. Despite being federally classified as a midsize car based on overall interior dimensions, Prius isn’t quite wide enough for three adults to fit comfortably in the rear seat. With two aboard, there’s plenty of knee and toe space.

Prius’s cabin design is as futuristic as its exterior styling and is nicely assembled from high-quality materials. Most controls are logically arrayed, but the all-digital instrumentation’s location atop the central portion of the dashboard -- rather than in front of the driver -- takes getting used to.

Both the standard Prius and the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid have a multi-information dashboard screen that details fuel-consumption history and animates the power flow between engine, battery, and motor; the Plug-in adds readouts for battery state-of-charge and ratio of electric-only driving. New to both is a menu that measures gas savings, in both expense and miles per gallon, against a comparison vehicle, such as the SUV a spouse may be driving.   

Both the 2012 Prius standard model and the Plug-in Hybrid provide a generous 21.6 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat and 39.6 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded to form a flat, carpeted surface. The hatchback opening is large, but the load floor itself is rather high, so hoisting heavy objects aboard isn’t as convenient as it might be. Small-items storage space is stingy, however; only the front doors have map pockets, for example, and they’re essentially cup holders.

The 2012 Prius standard model returns in four levels of trim, labeled with little pretense, Prius Two, Three, Four, and Five. (There’s also a Prius One model intended exclusively for rental and commercial fleets.) Styling differences among the standard models are slight and run mostly to wheel types, with 17-inch wheels on the Prius Five and 15s on the others. The dealer-installed Plus Performance accessory package includes 17-inch wheels with wider tires, a handling-tuned suspension lowered more than an inch, and aerodynamic ground-effects body addenda.

The 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid models comes in two trim levels, base and Advanced. They differ visually from the standard Prius in the ways mentioned above and also have slightly different 15-inch wheels. The Plug-in Hybrid is a nominal 123 pounds heavier than the standard Prius due to its onboard charging system and larger battery pack.   

Mechanical: All versions of the 2012 Toyota Prius employ a combination of gasoline and electric power. Toyota calls the system Hybrid Synergy Drive. It propels the car by drawing on gas or electric power individually or in combination, automatically mixing and matching to balance the demand for acceleration with the goal of conserving fuel.

The gas engine in both the standard and Plug-in Prius is a1.8-liter four-cylinder. It teams with two small electric motors for a combined output of 134 horsepower. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic, and with either car, drivers who use the Prius for frequent short trips and local driving will realize the biggest reduction in gasoline usage.

Here’s how they work: Battery charge permitting, both Prius types are capable of moving at around-town speeds on electric power alone. They can further save gas by automatically shutting off the engine while the car is stopped and restarting it when the driver depresses the accelerator pedal. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system uses the engine and regenerative braking to recharge the onboard battery pack. Their different battery type is the primary distinction between the standard Prius and the Plug-in Hybrid.

In the standard 2012 Prius, the energy-storage system employs nickel-metal hydride batteries. There is no plug-in capability, and ultimate range is determined principally by how much gas is in the 11.9-gallon tank. The standard Prius can travel about 1 mile and reach 40 mph or so on electricity alone. It has a combined gas-electric range of 536 miles.

By contrast, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in expands Hybrid Synergy Drive technology via a lithium-ion battery that can store an initial charge that enables all-electric operation of 13 miles and up to 60 mph. For longer distances, the Prius Plug-in reverts to “standard” hybrid mode and operates like a regular Prius. It has a 10.6-gallon fuel tank and a combined gas-electric range of 540 miles.

The 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid comes with a 24-foot cable that plugs into a port on the car’s right rear fender. Connected to a household-type 120-volt connector, it takes approximately three hours to fully charge the Prius Plug-in Hybrid battery. Toyota encourages owners to install a special 240-volt charging station that uses the same cable and port but can cut charging time in half. The fender port is illuminated for nighttime charging. A timer can be set for start and end times and allows charging during off-peak-rate hours.

(Lithium-ion batteries, by the way, are the next advance in gas-electric automobile systems principally because they’re more compact relative to nickel-metal batteries and can better satisfy the large swings in charging and discharging demanded by plug-in and pure-electric vehicles. Lithium ion batteries are actually less expensive than nickel-metal batteries in terms of materials but more expensive in terms of production costs.)  

Our test drives of both the standard Prius and the Plug-in Hybrid model reveals performance that’s sufficient for any driving need, though acceleration from a stop can be lazy, steering feel is artificial, and handling is by no means sporty.

Features: The 2012 Toyota Prius gets a nice range of updated features, highlighted by expanded connectivity via the newly available Toyota Entune system. Entune is a collection of popular mobile applications and data services. It comes with three years complimentary access.

Once a smartphone is connected using Bluetooth wireless technology or a USB cable, Entune operates through the vehicle’s controls or, for some services, through voice recognition. Entune offers mobile apps for Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and Pandora Internet radio. Data services include a fuel price guide, sports scores, stocks, traffic and weather. Entune is standard on every 2012 Prius except the Two model.

Among new features in the standard Prius line, the Three model now comes with remote entry and pushbutton start. The Prius Four gets standard auto on/off headlamps, a power driver’s seat, and replaces the 2011 version’s standard leather upholstery with Toyota’s lighter-weight SofTex upholstery.

The 2012 Prius Two, Three, and Four models also have new standard audio/infotainment systems. The Prius Two gets a 6.1-inch audio-touchscreen system with a USB interface for iPod connectivity, plus Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming. The display also provides the aforementioned vehicle information.

The 2012 Prius Three adds as standard a GPS navigation system that uses the 6.1-inch screen and incorporates Entune. It also includes a rearview camera, SiriusXM satellite radio capability, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, and text-to-speech that reads aloud incoming text messages and answers with programmed and customizable text responses. The 2012 Prius Four model includes that system plus an upgraded eight-speaker audio array with energy-conserving JBL GreenEdge technology.

Returning as an option for Prius Three and Four models is the Solar Roof Package. This is a sliding glass moonroof accompanied by solar panels that power a ventilation system. The ventilation system helps reduce the interior air temperature when car is parked in sun, reducing air-conditioner use and saving gas. A Deluxe Solar Roof Package available for the Prius Four includes a Head-up Display that projects key instrument readouts on the windshield, plus a premium navigation system with a 7-inch touchscreen and split-screen capability.

The Advance Technology Package optional on the 2012 Prius Five and included on the Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced model bundles the head-up display with four driver-assist features: Dynamic Cruise Control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead; Intelligent Park Assist to automatically back Prius into a parallel parking space; Lane Keep Assist to steer it back into the intended highway lane; and Pre-Collision to cinch seatbelts and pre-apply the brakes when a crash is imminent.

Optional on the Prius Four and Five and standard on the Plug-in Advanced model is Toyota’s Safety Connect system. This accesses a call center with a live operator who can dispatch police and emergency vehicles. It includes automatic collision notification and a stolen-vehicle locator, which can track the stolen Prius via GPS and help guide police to it.

Standard on the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid and included in the Solar Roof Package for Prius Three and Four models is a remote air-conditioning system activated by the key fob. This saves gas by using electricity to cool the cabin prior to driving. In the standard models, it uses available energy stored in the battery. In the Plug-in Hybrid it uses the external AC power source.

The 2012 Prius Plug-in further saves gas by allowing the driver to sidestep the vehicle’s heater and obtain warmth through standard heated front seats and a supplementary electric heater. And apps developed for the Plug-in allow the driver to use a smartphone to manage plug-in charging times, start the remote air-conditioning system, and locate public charging stations.

2012 Toyota Prius Prices back to top

Base-price range is $24,760-$30,565 for the 2012 Toyota Prius standard model and $32,760-$40,285 for the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid. (Base prices in this review include the manufacturer’s mandated destination fee; Toyota’s destination fee for the 2012 Prius is $760. Toyotas sold in some Southeastern and Gulf states may carry different destination fees.)

Gas-electric hybrids in competition with the standard Prius include the Honda Civic Hybrid (base-price range about $25,000-$28,000), Hyundai Sonata Hybrid ($27,000-$32,000), and Toyota’s own Camry Hybrid ($26,660-$28,160). The Prius, however, has better fuel economy than any competing hybrid. Other carmakers are preparing to launch plug-in hybrids, but the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s prime competitor is the Chevrolet Volt, a four-seat compact hatchback that runs on electric power but employs an onboard gas engine as a generator. The Volt is priced at $39,995.  

The fleet-only 2012 Toyota Prius One starts at $23,775, but the Prius Two is the entry-level retail model and is priced from $24,760. Like every 2012 Prius, the Two comes with such features as Bluetooth and USB connectivity, cruise control, steering-wheel buttons to cycle various dashboard displays, and selectable hybrid modes that allow the driver to favor acceleration or economy.

Base price for the 2012 Prius Three is $26,325. It adds to the Two model the navigation and Entune systems, plus remote entry and pushbutton ignition among other features. The 2012 Prius Four starts at $28,995 and builds on the Three with SofTex-trimmed heated front seats, a power driver’s seat, and a HomeLink remote garage and gate opener, among other items. The 2012 Toyota Prius Five is priced from $30,565. It includes all the Four-model equipment, plus LED headlamps, fog lamps, and the 17-inch wheels.

The 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in base model starts at $32,760. Its standard equipment includes all the features of the Prius Two grade, plus some from the Prius Three and Four models. It comes with the navigation/Entune system and pushbutton ignition, plus LED daytime running lights. Priced from $40,285, the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid Advanced is the most expensive Prius model. It’s equipped similarly to the Prius Five.

Note that buyers of Prius Plug-ins may qualify for a federal tax credit of approximately $2,500 and may also be eligible for additional state tax credits. As for the cost of home charging stations, Toyota’s “approved provider” is the electrical-device maker Leviton, which will install a 120-240-volt unit that starts around $1,000 – not including various permit fees or additional costs based on site conditions.   

Examples of prices for key Prius options include $4,320 for the Advanced Technology Package for Prius Five models. The Solar Roof Package adds $3,820 to a Prius Four and $1,500 to a Prius Three. And the Plus Performance package costs $2,999.  

2012 Toyota Prius Fuel Economy back to top

The 2012 Toyota Prius standard model remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle on sale in the U.S., excluding plug-in hybrids and pure-electric vehicles. And the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid beats the Chevy Volt both in electric and gas efficiency.

The 2012 Prius standard version has an EPA fuel-economy rating of 51/48/50 mpg city/highway/combined. That the city mileage rating is higher than the highway rating shows that Prius’s hybrid system is most efficient in low-speed, city driving. There, it can run exclusively on electric power and can best utilize its engine stop-start feature. Both versions of the Prius use 87-octane gas.

The EPA developed a calculation called miles per gallon-equivalent (mpge) to convert electric propulsion to gas-mileage terms. Using the conversion, the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid rates 95 mpge. Operating in “standard” gas-electric-hybrid mode, the Plug-in rates 51/49/50 mpg city/highway/combined.

In addition to outscoring the Volt in EPA ratings, Toyota points out that the Prius Plug-in Hybrid’s ability to maximize all-electric power for short trips or hybrid power for longer drives alleviates the issue of limited cruising range encountered with pure electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf.

2012 Toyota Prius Release Date back to top

The 2012 Toyota Prius standard model went on sale in December 2011. Deliveries of the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid began in spring 2012 in the 14 launch states. The Plug-in model won’t be available in all states until 2013.

What's next for the 2012 Toyota Prius back to top

Prius is the most recognized and most popular hybrid on the planet and Toyota is leveraging that profile by creating a Prius-badged family of vehicles. It includes the larger Prius v, which is essentially a stretched version of the Prius hatchback. It also contains the smaller Prius c, which competes with the compact Honda Insight hybrid but is actually a gas-electric version of the Toyota Yaris with Prius-like styling.

The updates to the 2012 Prius standard model and introduction of the 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid set the Prius hatchback on course for the balance of this design generation. Toyota could shuffle features among models but isn’t likely to discover useful technology it doesn’t already offer. And while it has developed a pure-electric version of the RAV4 crossover SUV, it apparently has no plans to add an all-electric Prius – at least before it launches the next-generation version in model-year 2015 or so.

2012 Toyota Prius Competition back to top

Toyota Camry Hybrid: Rarely do we place a corporate sibling among a vehicle’s competitive set, but in this case, Prius intenders would do well to walk across the Toyota showroom and check out the Camry Hybrid. It’s based on the redesigned 2012 Camry and combines a gas four-cylinder engine with electric motors for a net 200 horsepower. It’s not a plug-in hybrid, but is a refined family sedan that rates a highly efficient 43/39/41 mpg. Unlike the unique-looking Prius, the Camry Hybrid looks like any other Camry so it won’t broadcast your green sensibilities. But it’s roomier and more comfortable than the Prius. It’s faster, and handles better, too. Prices start at $26,660 for the 2012 Camry Hybrid LE model and at $28,160 for the luxurious Camry Hybrid XLE.

Chevrolet Volt: Volt represents an intriguing rival for the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. This aero-styled hatchback is based on the conventional Chevy Cruze compact car but is driven exclusively by a 149-horsepower electric motor. An 84-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine is aboard to act as a generator for the electric motor once Volt’s lithium ion battery pack is depleted. That occurs after 47 miles or so, but the Volt’s combined range on one charge of electricity and a full tank of gas is 380 miles. Volt can be juiced up with a 120 or 240-volt current and comes with a heavy-duty electrical cord that plugs into a port on its front fender. Volt rates 94 mpge on electric power and 35/40/37 mpg when the gas engine is acting as a generator. Volt is a terrific technical exercise but lacks the overall refinement than the roomier Prius Plug-in Hybrid. Base price for the 2012 Volt is $39,995, not counting any federal or state tax breaks.

Honda Civic Hybrid: Honda’s Prius-mimicking Insight fell short of early promise, being smaller, cruder, slower, and less fuel-efficient than the target Toyota. But that doesn’t mean Honda’s without a hybrid star. It comes wrapped in the same body as any other Civic sedan but combines a four-cylinder engine and electric motivation for overall performance that feels far strong than its net 110-horsepower output would suggest. Fuel economy is a credible and rather redundant 44/44/44 mpg, without the expense of a plug-in system. Best of all, the Civic Hybrid is a stellar compact car, with near-class-leading roominess and responsiveness that arguably exceeds that of mainstream gas-only Civics. Base price range for the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid is $24,800-$27,500.