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Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius is the hybrid that started it all. A high-roofed, aerodynamically shaped, gas-electric hatchback, the Prius is now the icon of the green-car set. It's the best-selling hybrid on the planet, by far, and with its 50-mpg combined fuel economy, it's not hard to see why.

The Prius is also the name of an entire family of four cars: the classic five-door hatchback, now deemed Liftback, joined by a plug-in hybrid model, a smaller subcompact Prius C hatchback with a price under $20,000, and a larger, taller, vastly more capacious Prius V wagon.

All four cars maintain the virtues of the Toyota Prius hybrid, with three of the four rated by the EPA at 50 mpg combined--the highest ranking of any gasoline car sold in the U.S. this year. (The Prius V wagon comes in at 42 mpg combined.) And the effective fuel economy of the plug-in Prius can rise above 50 mpg if the user does a lot of short drives and plugs the car in to recharge its battery pack between trips. Its electric range of 6 miles continuous, 11 miles total is the lowest of any plug-in car sold today.

While the 2000 Prius wasn't quite the first hybrid on sale in the U.S. (the original Honda Insight beat it by a few months), Toyota has now sold far more Priuses than Honda has hybrids in total. Toyota is by far the world's pre-eminent builder of hybrids, with roughly 4 million sold globally.

The company first launched the Prius in 1997, in Japan only. At that time a subcompact four-door sedan, that 1997 Prius was the first vehicle to feature the automaker's hybrid system, now known as Hybrid Synergy Drive. Fifteen years later, the expanding Prius lineup remains both the technology flagship for the Toyota brand and an icon for hybrid vehicles in general.

The second-generation (2004-2009) Prius rocked the world when it was launched, moving up beyond compact size and adopting a radically aerodynamic and unique five-door hatchback body style. The second- and third-generation Prius models both offer a surprising volume of interior space—enough for four adults, comfortably, or five in a pinch—along with good, easy-loading cargo space through the wide-opening hatch.

For the 2010 model year, a new third-generation Prius was launched, though it's instantly recognizable through many of the styling cues of the second generation vehicle. The latest model has a lighter, stiffer body, improved battery management, better aerodynamics, and a slightly larger (1.8- instead of 1.6-liter) four-cylinder engine, giving it better acceleration under high power demands. It also continues the Prius's steady march up the efficiency charts, hitting the magic 50-mpg rating. The new Prius allows drivers more confidence in everyday commuting, with 0-to-60-mph times just below the 10-second mark, and highway cruising that feels a little more relaxed. That said, the Prius driving experience has always felt very detached and numb, with little actual 'feel' in the steering or the brakes. It's "appliance driving" at its most evolved.

2012 Toyota Prius C, Catskill Mountains, NY, Oct 2012

The three additions to the Prius lineup arrived during 2012. With annual Prius sales in the U.S. reaching 237,000 cars in 2012, the liftback represents almost two-thirds of the total, with 17% Prius V wagons, 15% Prius C subcompacts, and about 5% the plug-in Prius model.

At the heart of any Prius is Toyota's hybrid technology, which uses a nickel-metal hydride battery pack that powers an electric motor-generator paired to a small four-cylinder gasoline engine, with a second motor-generator serving to recapture otherwise wasted energy and use it to recharge the battery under regenerative braking. The complicated two-motor system uses a planetary gear set to split power flows among the two motors, the engine, and the final drive. It acts as an electronic continuously variable transmission—a configuration that continues today in the Prius.

Standard safety features and advanced safety-tech options have been stepped up on the third-generation Prius—including a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, and a "Safety Connect" system that automatically alerts emergency crews in the event of a crash.

Toyota's Intelligent Parking Assist system helps you parallel-park the Prius via the car's cameras, albeit with your foot on the brake to control speed, although most reviewers feel the similar Ford system is more intuitive and accurate.

For 2012, the Prius hatchback acquired a handful of new higher level features and a mildly restyled front fascia, with LED running lights and changes to the taillights as well. That said, the interior plastics are hardly luxurious and the driving experience remains unexciting. One thing we don't like is the new "flying buttress" center-console design, which interferes with the driver's knee room.

Two new body styles joined the expanding Prius lineup for 2012. The Prius V wagon version has its own brand-new body, a redesigned interior, and more space for both people and cargo. Its combined EPA fuel economy rating is 42 mpg, higher than any other wagon or crossover on the market in 2012. Because it's about 300 pounds heavier than the Prius Liftback, however, with the same powertrain, it can feel slow and strained when heavily loaded on steep hills. Other features of the Prius V include a sliding second row of seats that include a 45-degree recline, 60/40 split seat back, and 34 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats.

The compact Prius C--it's actually closer to a subcompact--shares the family name, but is a radically different car than Toyota’s original hybrid. It's some 19 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower and nearly 2 inches lower than the well-known Prius mid-size five-door hatchback. Nearly every Hybrid Synergy Drive component was redesigned, and the Prius C uses a smaller 1.5-liter engine, so it's about 500 pounds lighter than the Prius Liftback. Fuel economy is the same combined 50 mpg as the larger Prius hatchback--although it's higher in the city at 53 mpg, and lower on the highway, at 47 mpg--while the price falls to about $19,000.

Finally, a plug-in version of the Prius hybrid went on sale in February 2012, representing Toyota's first-ever plug-in version of its signature hybrid car. The plug-in Prius will eventually be sold across the country, though full 50-state coverage won't be completed until sometime in 2013. Within six months of its launch, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid had become the third best-selling plug-in car sold in the U.S., in part because it's the only Prius eligible for the coveted single-occupancy use of carpool lanes on congested California freeways.

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