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.

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 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 has a longer wheelbase and is wider and taller than the liftback.

The extra length accommodates a cavernous cargo area. 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. 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 boast high levels of comfort: firm but not too hard.

Perhaps the Prius' best-known attribute is its high fuel economy. With 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) EPA-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).

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 ultra-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.

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

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.

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.

Inside, Toyota integrates 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.

Sure to be talked about is Toyota's excellent new Entune multi-information system. It marries an owner's smartphone to the car, with several apps at rollout, including Pandora, OpenTable, iheartradio, Bing and MovieTickets.com.

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 of the V all are well-equipped; even the base wagon gets 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 selling slowly and a Prius V starting price of at least $25,000, hitting that target may be tough.

Still, with expensive gas and Americans determined to retain cargo-hauling capability, the Prius V is a good substitute and more fun to drive, too.

PROS/CONS

+

  • Good MPG despite size
  • Reclining rear seats
  • Surprisingly sporty

-

  • Tall wagons look dorky
  • Middle seat soft and hard
  • It ain't no Supra

'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: 98 hp @ 5,200 rpm (134 hp net)

Torque: 105 lb.-ft. (142 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm

Transmission: Continuously variable

Electric motor output: 60 kW (80 hp), 153 lb.-ft. (207 Nm)

Battery: 27 kW (36 hp) NiMH

Wheelbase: 109.4 ins. (278 cm)

Overall length: 181.7 ins. (462 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