Toyota Prius Plug-in, Infiniti G37, Nissan Versa, Toyota Camry, and Fiat 500C
By Dottie Tiejun Li
This is the month to wheel and deal. That is, make some deals and get some wheels, as car dealerships are trying to move the last of the 2012 models out of their showrooms and off their lots to make way for the 2013s. And that means some of the best prices of the year can be yours right now.
So here’s a quick look at some 2012s. Maybe there’s a deal available that’s so good you’ll have enough money left over to fill the gas tank.
TOYOTA PRIUS PLUG-IN (2WD, 5-Door Sedan) 2012
Of course, filling your Prius Plug-In with gasoline may not be such a high priority, provided you’re set up for some quick home charging and you plan your trips carefully. Toyota says the hybrid allows true EV operation and performance for up to 15 miles at speeds reaching 62 mph, powered by a charge from a standard AC outlet (and 15-amp dedicated circuit).
That’s great, to a point. And that point is at the rear of the car, where Toyota unhelpfully put the charge port on the passenger side. That means some extra maneuvering awaits you when you try to attach too-short cords to the AC outlet at home or away. You’re left having to carefully position the car at what is essentially a blind spot, a challenge in a driveway or at a charging station. Once you figure out how to do that without scraping some of that shiny new paint off, the car should get a full charge from a standard 120V outlet in about three hours, or about 90-minutes with 240V power. And that’s the main selling point for the Prius Plug-In. If you need a car primarily for short hops and hope to hardly ever pull into a gas station, it can fulfill that promise.
This is basically the same car as the 3rd Generation Prius, except for the plug-in feature and upgraded battery. The fuel economy on the 5-door, 2WD sedan I drove is listed at 95 MPGe (electricity and gas) and 50 MPG gas only. If you pay a low enough rate for electricity, and keep the car fully charged, you should operate the plug-in more cost-effectively than the standard Prius models. If you don’t use electricity from a plug-in, your mileage will be about the same as the regular Prius.
The Prius Plug-In sedan is, like its relatives, not flashy or even stylish in appearance. But then, the appeal is based on saving your money and your earth. Still, the interior is pretty roomy, seating up to four passengers comfortably and allowing configurations for 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space. Materials and design are designed for functionality and practicality, and the cluttered console displays are fairly sophisticated.
Driving modes allow you to make choices regarding efficiency versus responsiveness, although accelerating robustly in the battery mode will cause the gas engine to start up. And, as this is not generally thought of as a performance vehicle, you might feel you need the power mode to get up a steep hill or hit the passing lane, again sacrificing fuel efficiency.
The base price for the Prius Plug-in starts at $32,000. The vehicle I drove, which was loaded with luxury features, was listed at $39, 525. So the Prius Plug-In compares favorably with other models in its class, even if it costs a bit more than basic Prius models.
--1.8L DOHC, 16V, VVT-1, 4-cylinder engine
--4.4 kWh Li-ion Battery, EV/ECO/PWR modes
--Electricity & Gasoline: 95 MPGe
--Gasoline Only: 50 MPG
--Base Price: $32,000
INFINITI G37 COUPE AWD (2012)
The name of the color highlighting the attractive Infiniti coupe I drove for a week may tell us a lot of what we need to know about this car: Graphite Shadow. Just seeing that descriptive name brings back the sense of chic and elegant styling I experienced at first glance. And Infiniti backs up the great looks with sporty performance. OK, forget about fuel economy; this is not a Prius. You’re going to burn up earth’s precious fossil fuel with this one. But the Infiniti G37 Coupe for 2012 is a car that’s fun to drive, fun to look at, and it’s even fun to just sit in.
The G37’s design and performance puts it somewhere between a sports cars and an entry-level luxury sedan. The snug interior provides real comfort while driving, while the seven-speed automatic transmission and robust six valve, 330 HP engine of the model I drove added a bracing kick. You can feel the control helped by independent front and rear suspension and the front and rear stabilizer bars that let you hug curves with firm control. Steering, too, is tight, and the brakes exert instant restraint, all of which added to my confidence behind the wheel. Of course, the model I drove was loaded with quite a few luxury options, including a “sport package” which enhanced the performance I so enjoyed. But even the standard features offer a good range of performance and technology equipment.
The appearance is not flashy at all, which I appreciate. While the proportions are definitely sporty, the overall image it projects is mellow and upscale. Maybe even understated a bit. Just what you’d expect from something colored in…Graphite Shadow. I felt pampered in the deep seats, my eyes soaking in the well-finished interior with its rich leather, high console, and delicately brushed aluminum trim. (Rosewood is also available.) Of course, those deep seats are a bit low and visibility looking out the back is nowhere close to what I like and really need as there are children about. Also, the rear seats are cramped and there’s not as much trunk space an active mom needs. OK, so it’s not the best family car. Get yourself a nice sedan for that, and maybe keep this one tucked away in the garage for yourself and the hubby for when you have a few moments and want to escape.
--3.7 liter DOHC, 24 valve, VVEL V-6 engine
--330 HP, 270 lb-ft torque
--7-speed automatic transmission with Drive Sport mode
--City: 18 MPG
--Highway: 25 MPG
--Base Price $40,700
--Reviewed Model Price: 48,445
NISSAN VERSA 1.6 SV SEDAN (2012)
Ah, from the sublime to the…to the…well, not sublime. But not really so bad when you consider that the entire price tag for the Versa I drove is less than a third of the Infiniti coupe described above.
Nissan redesigned the Versa for 2012, improving the interior space and fuel economy. But this is still a bland sedan best suited for getting you from point A to point B while maintaining your promise to keep your transportation on a tight budget.
A 1.6-liter engine fires up 109 horsepower, so it’s actually operating on less power than the engine used in older Versas. But the 2012, it turns out, is actually lighter than in previous years, so with less weight to haul, the power equation probably evens out. Also as a result of the re-design, fuel economy is up for 2012, coming in at 30 mpg city and 38 highway with the “revised continuously variable automatic transmission” in the sedan I drove. Rolling down the road is comfortable enough, with a drive that might be described as sprightly. There’s no real sense of power under your control, but the lag that comes when you need acceleration is not out of line for the engine size and the price tag. The car handles well enough, too, with a pleasantly stable feel.
The interior is roomier than I expected, and that includes the rear seating. There’s a lot of trunk space, too, adding checkmarks in the plus column. Standard equipment includes antilock brakes (front disc, rear drum), brake assist, traction and stability control, front seat side airbags and side curtain airbags. The Versa sedan comes in three trim levels: S, SV and SL. I drove the SV, which added a Cruise Control package, full power accessories, keyless entry, upgraded upholstery and improved gauges. The optional Convenience Package provided amenities including Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio controls, interface ability for I-Pod, etc.
This is seemingly dependable transportation with a few extras thrown in to keep you from feeling deprived. I can’t say this car provided me with any thrills, or even an enhanced sense of pleasure while behind the wheel. But with a $15,000 price tag, you can take the money you save on your car and buy some thrills elsewhere.
--1.6 L DOHC, 16 valve, 4-cylinder engine
--109 HP, 107 lb ft torque
--Continuously Variable Automatic Transmission
--City: 30 MPG
--Highway: 38 MPG
--Base Price $14,560
--Price of Reviewed Model: $15,840
TOYOTA CAMRY 4-DOOR SE V6 SEDAN (2012)
Just as I was enchanted with Graphic Shadow, the color of the Infiniti G37, I was snapped quickly back to reality here as the color of the 2012 Camry sedan I drove was…get ready…silver metallic gray. In my imagination, that’s kind of like going from the swirling hues of the Emerald City of Oz to a prison cell block. But sometimes your imagination can play tricks on you, as I discovered when I realized that what I thought at first was a little gray mouse actually has the heart of, if not a lion, then at least a wolverine. That is, there’s more punch under the hood than I expected, along with the responsiveness of a more expensive or sportier vehicle.
I had long thought that Camrys were primarily defined by durability but provided tepid performance and rather soft handling. But Toyota made some improvements for 2012, and the SE model I drove showed me quite enough power for routine acceleration. Remember, this is a mid-size family sedan, and I think Toyota’s well-publicized improvements in what they call this model’s “sports-tuned suspension,” combined with traction control and responsive “electric-assisted” steering, have put some life into the car while still allowing me to feel like a responsible mom, firmly in control. And, thinking of the family budget, the agile V-6 engine ran at about 30 MPG in highway driving, which is not so bad, either.
The car looks like a Camry, which means it’s functional but hardly an econo-box. In fact, the trim profile and neatly crafted lines are rather pleasing to the eye. In the passenger compartment, Toyota has made significant improvements in both materials and design, with nicely appointed trim. The model I drove had some optional upgrades, and I enjoyed the leather-trimmed, ultrasuede sports seats (Toyota is using that “sporty” word a lot with this car, you’ll notice). The new touchscreen electronics interface is generally user-friendly and there’s an upgraded audio system with a fairly wide range of features. There’s a standard list of safety and convenience features, ranging from an anti-lock braking system to extra airbags to steering wheel audio controls and Bluetooth.
With a modest basic list price of $26,640, and Camry’s long-established reputation for resilience, the new and improved SE sedan for 2012 may be a good fit for your family’s driving needs and budget.
--3.5 L V-6 DOHC, 24 valve with Dual VVT-I engine
--268 HP with 248 ft lb torque
--6-speed, ECT-I automatic transmission with paddle shifters
--City: 21 MPG
--Highway: 30 MPG
--Base Price: $26,640
--Reviewed Model Price: 30,601
FIAT 500C LOUNGE CABRIO (2012)
OK, so maybe I just don’t have enough joie de vivre. Actually, as this is an Italian car, I guess I should drop the French and say maybe I’m lacking some essential ability for la dolce vita, or something. Whichever language it’s in, I just cannot say that I found the return of the classic Fiat brand to these United States all that exciting. In fact, the new 500 C Lounge Cabrio I drove had all the adventure of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle for me.
Its appearance has a certain trendy appeal because it is so obviously retro-European in design. But beyond the Euro-cool, it’s is a stubby little box, great for city parking but not designed to cause the eye to linger on graceful lines. OK, I thought at first glance, the appeal here is for utility, which is admirable enough. But when I sat behind the wheel, I was so struck with the overwhelming recreation of early 1960s Italian styling that I half expected to see Marcello Mastroianni in the passenger seat, smoking a cigarette and gazing at me with sleepy eyes. But Marcello is long gone, and only the vintage styling remains. This is strictly a matter of personal preference; you might well enjoy the recreation of Fiat’s single concentric instrument cluster, and the shapes and colors of another time and place to be attractive, but I found it a bit too garish for my apparently more subdued tastes. All those circles. Even the headrests formed a halo.
The exterior color of the model I drove is blue. Yes, it’s just called “blue,” even if in Italian, azzurro, it sounds more sophisticated and alluring. But my car was drenched in unsubtle, bright but flat and basic blue that I have only seen before on a few of my son’s Hot Wheels toy cars. Maybe the gaudy color is supposed to evoke some felice festa feeling, or bring to mind the sunny skies over Umbria’s countryside, but I felt as though I was rolling through town in a toy.
Fiat has mixed in the latest electronic displays with the retro console, so you won’t be lacking the communications, technical, or audio information we are used to having in 2012. There seemed to be a lot of hard surfaces in the passenger compartment. Even some leather touches in unappealing brown, provided by the optional luxury package in the Lounge Cabrio I drove, could not make me escape that sense of downscale surfaces. However, the roll-back cloth roof is a nice feature, with the pillars and window frames staying upright to keep the wind mostly off passengers and retaining the vintage look. The front seats are comfortable enough, with the rear fairly cramped.
An all-new 1.4-liter 16-valve engine provides 101 horsepower that is OK for stop-and-go city driving but which left me a bit frustrated on the highway. Driving a four cylinder car this small on the Beltway, and being crowded by big rigs without the power to instantly generate the speed I’d like, left me unsatisfied.
So, the Fiat 500C Lounge Cabrio, with a basic price of $22,500, may just be the thing for young, limber-limbed (this is a small car, remember) budget-conscious city-dwellers seeking the ambiance of vintage European sophistication while negotiating tight parking spaces. They will find most of the modern extras in functional and safety features we have come to expect since the 1960s to be available, combined with good mileage to keep transportation costs manageable.
--1.4 L engine with 4 cylinders
--101 HP at 6,500 RPM
--6-speed automatic transmission
--City: 27 MPG
--Highway: 32 MPG
--Base Price: 22,500
--Price of reviewed Model: $26,400