HALF MOON BAY, CA – Toyota says the V in Prius V stands for versatile.

But we find it vivacious and vexing: Vivacious because it is fun-to-drive and vexing because American consumers have a notorious aversion to wagons, especially tall ones (R.I.P. Kia Rondo).

Still, after a day of driving, it’s clear the new ’12 Prius V is a winning addition to the Prius lineup.

On sale this fall in the U.S., the V is a near descendant of the uber-popular original body style, which Toyota calls the liftback and has racked up 1 million-plus sales in the U.S. in 11 years.

The V employs the same hybrid system (1.8L gas engine, 60-kW [80-hp] electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery), but it rides on a version of the liftback’s MC chassis that is 6 ins. (15 cm) longer. The Prius V also boasts a longer wheelbase and is a bit wider and taller than the liftback.

The extra length accommodates a cavernous, 34.3-cu.-ft. (1.0-cu.-m) cargo area with the rear seat up. Toyota claims it is bigger than the cargo holds of 80% of small utility vehicles and 53% more spacious than that of the current, third-gen liftback.

The longer wheelbase and added height make for a roomy rear seat with tons of head- and leg-room for all but the tallest folks.

The long latter half of the Prius V also accommodates a sliding and reclining rear seat, a great feature bringing more comfort to steerage.

Outboard second-row seats are accommodating and spacious, but the middle seat has a squishier bottom cushion and, thanks to a foldout armrest, a stiff back.

The middle head restraint’s max height is insufficient to protect most adult passengers from whiplash.

Front-row seats also boast high levels of comfort: firm but not too hard.

Perhaps the Prius’ best-known attribute is its high fuel economy. Thanks to some wondrous and mystical code, and a bit of hyper-miling, it’s possible to get 70 mpg (3.4 L/100 km) in the liftback, well above the 50-mpg (4.7 L/100 km) Environmental Protection Agency-estimated average.

This ability to topple the EPA rating is no different in the Prius V.

Rated at 40 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) combined, Ward’s achieves 44.8 mpg (5.3 L/100 km) in mid- speed suburban driving with few stops and 47.1 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) in a longer, more varied route stretching 62 miles (100 km). Our highest observed mileage was 48.7 mpg (4.8 L/100 km).

Some hyper-miling techniques were applied, such as slow acceleration and early braking, but not so often as to induce homicidal rage in tailing drivers.

The 62-mile leg takes us down the uber-twisty route 92, and shockingly the Prius carves up the road like a sports car.

Despite its extra 232 lbs. (105 kg) of weight compared with the liftback, the Prius V feels lighter and more maneuverable. Body lean is limited-to-nil in tight curves, with an overall well-planted feel.

The liftback’s MacPherson-strut front suspension remains but now has separate spring and shock absorber bushings to better control ride quality.

’12 Toyota Prius V
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
Engine 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 98 hp @ 5,200 rpm (134 hp net)
Torque 105 lb.-ft. (142 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 13.0:1
Electric motor output 60 kW (80 hp), 153 lb.-ft. (207 Nm)
Battery 27 kW (36 hp) NiMH, 201.6V nominal, 650V max
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 109.4 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 181.7 ins. (462 cm)
Overall width 69.9 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 62 ins., 63 ins. w/panoramic roof (157/160 cm)
Curb weight 3,274 lbs. (1,485 kg)
Base price TBA
Fuel economy 44/40 mpg (5.3-5.9 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Mazda5, Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon, Subaru Outback, Honda CR-V, Chevy Equinox, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue
Pros Cons
Good MPG despite size Tall wagons look dorky
Reclining rear seats Middle seat soft and hard
Surprisingly sporty It ain’t no Supra

With the V, Toyota introduces electronic pitch-and-bounce control, which applies or reduces torque in the driveline to better handle uneven pavement. The mostly level roads around here don’t provide much of a test, however.

The hybrid system is the same as in the liftback, but the exhaust-heat recirculation system gets a new heat exchanger, which allows the engine to shut off quicker than in the Prius liftback.

The Prius V’s unique sheet metal benefits from aerodynamic tricks to achieve a 0.29 coefficient of drag (the liftback has a 0.25 Cd).

Headlamps with “eyebrows” help direct wind around side mirrors, and the top-mounted rear spoiler is notched in the middle for better airflow.

The exterior styling is bound to prove divisive. The tall-wagon proportions are ungainly, but fans of the liftback Prius likely will welcome the new vehicle as a natural extension of the brand. It won’t win any beauty contests, but the design is straightforward.

Not destined for the design hall of fame is the Prius V’s instrument panel.

Conscious of harsh criticism of the liftback’s hard-plastic dash, Toyota kicks it up a notch by adding soft-touch material behind the steering wheel and above the glovebox.

But the interior design scheme is extremely basic. A tapered center stack, complete with three generic rectangular vents across the top, consists of simple black and gray plastic.

Toyota eliminated the controversial, flowing bridge of the liftback for the V. The new design opens up the space between the center stack and armrest, but it looks abrupt and unfinished. Bring back the bridge!

Sure to be the most-talked-about feature of the Prius V is Toyota’s excellent new Entune multi-information system. It marries an owner’s smartphone to the car, with six apps at rollout: Pandora, OpenTable, iheartradio, Bing, MovieTickets.com and Saved Destinations.

By using the data network of a synced smartphone, Toyota avoids charging a fee (i.e Entune is free for now) and an owner can easily access, for instance, his favorite Pandora music channels in-car.

Three grades – Prius Two, Prius Three and Prius Five – all are well-equipped, with even the base Prius V Two getting a standard 6.1-in. (15-cm) touch screen.

Toyota expects to sell between 21,000 and 26,000 Prius V hybrids annually in the U.S., based on last year’s Prius liftback deliveries of 140,928.

With wagons tending to sell in small volumes (the Mazda5’s 2010 sales were 15,683), and a Prius V starting price of at least $25,000, hitting even that modest target may be challenging.

Still, with gas at $4 a gallon in the U.S. and Americans determined not to give up the cargo- hauling capability of their utility vehicles, the Prius V is a good substitute and more fun to drive, to boot.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com