Ask pretty much any car buyer about green cars or hybrids and, chances are, that person will likely mention the Toyota Prius sooner or later.

Until this year, though, the Prius has been a single model: a subcompact four-door sedan from 2000 through 2003, and then two generations of mid-size five-door hatchback after that, one from 2004 through 2009, and the current version starting in 2010.

Now, for the first time, the iconic Prius is expanding from a single model into a line of models. And we've named both of the new 2012 Prius models together as a pair to be one of six nominees for the GreenCarReports Best Car To Buy 2012 award.

2012 Toyota Prius V station wagon, Half Moon Bay, CA, May 2011

2012 Toyota Prius V station wagon, Half Moon Bay, CA, May 2011

Prius V wagon

The first of the two new models, now on sale at dealers, is the 2012 Toyota Prius V wagon. Taller, longer, and with more load space than the original Prius hatchback, the 2012 Prius V seems likely to be a popular addition to the lineup.

Mechanically, it's pretty much the same as the standard Prius hatchback. But while from some angles it looks like a tall hatchback, the rear is clearly a wagon--and the greater load space with the rear seats folded down clinches it.

For the record, the hatchback and wagon models don't share a single body panel--but Toyota's stylists have cleverly made the Prius V look every inch a Prius nonetheless. And inside, they've dispensed with the striking but impractical "flying buttress" console for a more conventional lower tray that improve storage and access considerably.

And the greater space carries only a minor penalty in fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2012 Toyota Prius V at 42 mpg combined gas mileage, versus the 50-mpg rating for the lighter, more aerodynamic hatchback model.

There are three trim levels of the 2012 Prius V: They're priced at $27,160 (Prius V Two), $27,925 (Prius V Three), and $30,750 (Prius V Five), all including destination.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Prius Plug-In Hybrid

The second new Prius, which will arrive early next year, is the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid. It's the first Toyota model with a plug sold in this country in a decade, and it will likely be made in much greater volumes than the 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV that was the last Toyota that could be recharged from the electric grid.

You can think of the 2012 Prius Plug-In as a conventional Prius with a larger battery pack that plugs into the grid to recharge, as well as being charged by engine overrun and regenerative braking.

Unlike the range-extended electric Chevrolet Volt, however, the plug-in Prius will switch on its engine whenever more power is needed, even if the pack still has miles remaining on it. All-electric range is somewhere between 9 and 13 miles, depending on terrain, temperature, and a score of other factors.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

But for green buyers who are nervous about an all-battery car like the Nissan Leaf, and skeptical about the range-extended electric Volt, the 2012 Prius Plug-In Hybrid may be the gentlest, easiest, simplest way to go electric.

Recharging takes only about 3 hours on 120-Volt household current, and unless you're traveling cross country, a normal mix of suburban errands may end up with the Prius plug-in running fully half its miles on electricity. The base price is $32,760, including destination, and most buyers will qualify for a $2,500 Federal tax credit.

The EPA hasn't yet rated the gas mileage of the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, but it'll clearly be higher than the Prius hatchback's 50 mpg rating. We'd expect it to be at least 60 mpg, perhaps higher.

Toyota will offer the Prius Plug-In Hybrid in 14 states at launch: California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Next year, the company will make it available nationwide.

Tomorrow, we'll describe the last of our six nominees for the Best Car To Buy 2012 award, and on Monday, we'll reveal the winner.

'Til then, check out our dedicated page, Best Car To Buy 2012, for more information, including every story we've written about the candidates and the award.


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