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Green Wheels

Prius a pleasure under Prairie sun

Life on the long haul not so bad in benchmark compact hybrid

Published September 1, 2012

Can a fuel-sipping car handle a long road trip?

I decided to find out as my partner Denise and I planned to drive to Calgary for a family visit.

I was 11 years old the last time I embarked on such a jaunt. Then, my parents and five kids piled into a mammoth turquoise 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88, pulling a small wooden trailer that groaned under camping gear, food and clothes.

Such a trip is still possible, although you’d need a minivan or full-size SUV to handle the same load.

We had a different idea: With just the two of us, while we still intended to camp and carry some meals, we didn’t need a big hauler. I wanted to check out the possibility of a greener journey, which would burn less gasoline but leave us relaxed and fresh after days averaging more than 800 kilometres. We had no interest in hours of listening to a howling, overstressed motor and being tossed about by Prairie winds or transport trucks.

We weren’t aiming to hypermile, which quickly becomes an exercise in tedium and at freeway speeds, could be dangerous. We’d drive like normal people and keep up with traffic, even on the I-94 across North Dakota and Montana, where the speed limit is a fuel-gulping 120 kilometres per hour. Since our travel time was limited, we didn’t want to struggle with recharging our battery.

Until a true competitor such as Ford’s C-Max comes along, the logical choice was the Toyota Prius v, the largest member of the expanding family that’s virtually synonymous with hybrid. Other manufacturers are flooding showrooms with these vehicles that combine gasoline and electric propulsion. But for now, Prius still sets the standard.

This column, written with the trip half-done, will focus on what it’s like to spend so much time in what is, essentially, a small car that tries to squeeze the most oomph and fuel economy — an official rating of just 4.6 litres per 100 kilometres — out of a mere 134 combined gasoline and electric horsepower from its third-generation Hybrid Synergy Drive.

Next week, with numbers for the entire journey, I’ll deal with its “greenness” and costs.

Toyota calls the v a “viable family alternative” and surprisingly, that’s the case — as long as the family doesn’t exceed two parents and three kids. It seems small from the outside but those looks are deceiving.

The v is 29 mm wider, 135 longer and 85 higher than the original Prius hatchback and its rear roof is raised, all of which provides 971 litres of storage behind the second seat — a number Toyota says far exceeds competing hybrids such as Ford’s Fusion and Escape and the larger, more expensive Hyundai Sonata. That’s plenty of space for a family trip with hotel stays, although likely insufficient for a camping holiday.

The rear seat splits one-third, two-thirds. With both sides folded forward, luggage capacity expands to 1,906 litres. That seemed cavernous for the two of us — even though camping meant stowing extra equipment.

The basic v starts at $27,700. Ours came with a “touring” package — including leather-wrapped wheel, simulated leather seats, sunroof, display audio with navigation system and 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels — that raised the price to $33,350 before charges and taxes.

The front seats could use a bit more support, but even after hours on the road — aided by MacPherson struts up front, torsion-beam rear suspension, specially tweaked springs and shocks and what Toyota calls pitch and bounce control — we emerged with minimal aches.

The v whined under aggressive acceleration, but usually purred, even when we occasionally, ahem, exceeded the I-94’s generous speed limit. Of course, silence reigned in the brief periods when the electric motor pushed us along.

The audio and navigation systems are simple to manage, although the voice giving directions tried to turn us back home as we made our way through the expressway maze south of Chicago. More mysteriously on Highway 2 heading to Calgary, the system abruptly declared a route recalculation and ordered a right turn on to a narrow road that headed east into farmland. The lesson: Maps are still essential on a road trip.

The single cup holder in the centre console was a concern until we pressed a subtle indent on the passenger side of the dashboard that released a pop-out version.

Under a broiling Prairie sun, the automatic ventilation and air conditioning worked like an unobtrusive charm. An obvious button made it easy to switch the speedometer between miles and kilometres. One nuisance: Items that fall between the seat and console are gone until you stop and can reach under the seat from outside the car.

All in all, the v is a highly sophisticated car that, while no limo, is a pleasure over several long days.

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