The new Toyota Prius c is what happens when a Prius with a gasoline-electric hybrid powerplant is crossed with a compact four-door hatchback Yaris. Prius c is not a Yaris with a different engine, nor just a shortened Prius. And while Toyota didn't actually say so we believe you can say c is for city. Or compact.
The 2012 Prius c delivers the fuel economy and low emissions of eco-oriented hybrids like the bigger Prius in an easier to manage size and substantially lower price point. To wit, Prius c is more than 19 inches shorter than a Prius, 500 pounds lighter, at least $5,000 less, and it rates 53 miles per gallon on the EPA's City cycle. At $4 per gallon, that's 450 miles on a $36 tank.
Dimensionally similar to the Yaris and a couple of hundred pounds heavier, the Prius c has room for four adults or a three-toddler family. The airy cabin has interesting textures and textiles, and standard equipment on the least-expensive version includes automatic climate control and Bluetooth phone book and streaming audio. Upper level trims have connectivity on par with $100,000 luxury sedans.
A sophisticated combination of gasoline engine, electric motors, big and small batteries, variable-speed transmission, controllers and coolers powers the Prius c at economy-car acceleration and excellent economy. One-touch start, select D and off you go; if you use it the on-board fuel data displays can show you how efficient, or inefficient, you are.
Prius c may qualify for a tax incentive or carpool-lane access sticker in some locales.
The Prius c has no direct compact hybrid competitors. At similar pricing you can get a Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio or Volkswagen Golf diesel. Some of these will come close to the highway mileage of the Prius c, but none will match it in the city.
A conventional hatchback shape defines the Prius c. After all, there are only so many ways to get a hood, four doors and an upright rear end into a 13-foot-long car. Prius c will be as quickly recognized a Toyota as a Prius. Like other cars in this class, many could easily confuse it with three or more competitors were the badges removed.
Across the front a character line curls in from the lower edges, rising over the grilles like a bulldogs's upper lip with the double-ellipse Toyota logo forming a small nose. Pyramid-like outer corners house fog lights on top models and the projector headlamps use a detent on the lower edge to avoid a too-often seen plain triangle.
In profile the front door is the largest single aspect and the relationship between door cutouts and roofline is the dominant feature. Prius c mixes the door shape of the regular Prius and its high point at the middle pillar, with a taller roofline reminiscent of the Prius v to better meld into the hatchback tail. That pinched rear door corner might be an issue but taller individuals will be exercising care entering anyway.
Every model of the c we examined has signal repeaters in the outside mirrors, a plus in tight spaces or where sunlight might obscure the front signal. These are mounted on the lower outer edge and are the widest point of the car, but they cannot be seen from the driver's seat; be mindful trying to navigate a drive-up window or narrow opening between garage pillars and other cars.
At the rear the bodywork above the mid-section angles rearward, surrounding a large shiny section covered in clear plastic with one big red reflector on it. From some angles and certain colors the body looks like it leans backward a la Renault Megane, and the arches that carry over the wheels and around the rear resemble a bustle back or Harley cruiser fender. It is at once the most distinctive element and the most awkward.
The rear lights employ LED for brake lights, conventional bulbs for taillights, and amber bulbs behind a clear lens for signals. With circles and triangles and parallelograms in the various elements there's no theme but the brake lights do garner better reaction from inattentive drivers behind.
The Prius c Three may be optioned with alloy wheels that look and resist rusting better than the standard steel wheels. The 16-inch wheels optional on Prius c Four improve looks and handling at the expense of a slight decrease in mileage (though not enough to affect EPA ratings) and less steering lock.
Cargo access is straightforward and a temporary-use spare is under the floor. Any flat tire will go in the well but the cargo floor won't be flat.
If the outside is conventional the Prius c cabin is a little more interesting. It is not daring. There's no ground-breaking news here, just some unusual design, styles and level of standard features.
Front seats are roomy enough for six-plus-footers, even headroom, and comfortable enough for the car's intended mission; hour drives met with no complaints or sore spots. Fabric upholstery is never too hot or cold to sit on, and on most models the driver's seat adjusts for height. Note, however, that no model has adjustable height shoulder belt anchors and a tall passenger was not comfortable with the belt across their upper arm.
Three-across adults in back get less space than domestic air economy-class passengers, so limit it to two adults or three kids. Lanky testers were also able to fit in back, even with the optional sunroof, and carrying four simultaneously results in some tight knee space. The seat cushion is unusually long because of the batteries beneath it, which improves comfort for adults but might be uncomfortable for kids who can't hang their legs off the front of it. The rear seat folds to increase cargo area, and on any but the base model, it has a 60/40 split for flexibility.
Materials are mostly plastic with a few padded soft-touch panels, all expected in this class. Initially the styling lines on the dashboard looked like scratches, though they do mirror some of the lines in the optional SofTex upholstery that weighs about half what traditional leather weighs. That alone should tell you how important weight reduction was in this car.
A tilt and telescoping steering wheel with redundant controls faces the driver, though the range of the telescope function is so short we wonder why they bothered. Ahead of the wheel is a depression for pens and such with a ramp backwards to ease scooping things out that also makes them eject automatically accelerating up a hill.
The floor-mounted shifter is conventional, with PRNDB settings; all do what you expect and B is for battery (see Driving Impressions). Eco and EV mode switches are adjacent the handbrake aft of the shift lever.
Instrumentation is in a narrow display from the top of the wheel to the right edge of the center vents. It has a digital speedometer, fuel level, a couple of indicator lights and nothing else. To the right is the multi-information display that provides fuel and energy data in numerous ways, and on upper trims, momentarily overlays which steering wheel button has been pressed.
Below the display are the center vents, the radio or navigation screens, and below that in the lateral teardrop, climate controls. Upper trims have the Start/Stop pushbutton left of this, while lower levels have a molded circle that very obviously shows this model is missing something. A power point hides below the climate panel, and the USB/aux inputs are to the right adjacent a tray above the glovebox. This is easy to reach but means you can't leave things plugged in and concealed, and the test cars showed the limitations of the shallow tray because all the smartphones were kept from flying off the shelf by hook-and-loop fasteners. The glovebox is fairly deep.
Bluetooth and steering wheel controls for it are standard on every Prius c, while the top two models get Entune, Toyota's telematics system. Entune comes with Bing, Pandora, stocks, sports, traffic, and weather, and will add iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable in Spring of 2012. The audio system that goes with navi/Entune cars also includes XM Radio, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, iPod connectivity and control and Bluetooth wireless streaming. Entune services access is complimentary for three years, 24-33 months longer than most similar services. Note you may not be able to operate everything while underway.
With its low-profile dashboard and narrow windshield pillars Prius c is open, airy and easy to see out of. Only the outer rear headrests are full-size, so rearward visibility is good as well.
The Prius c has an unusual airbag arrangement. Front, front-side and side-curtains for front and back are typical, but there's also a driver's knee airbag and front seat cushion airbags that ensure occupants are best positioned for the front and side airbags to work. Rear seat side airbags are not available, and in most cases shouldn't be used with youngsters anyway.
Prius c is all about fuel economy and low emissions; at introduction it has the highest EPA ratings of any car without a plug. The basics of the propulsion system parallel those of the Prius on a smaller scale.
Power comes from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled with a pair of electric motors and a 144-volt, 0.87-kilowatt hour battery pack beneath the rear seat. Each of the electric motors serves a different function and the computer that runs it all sends a maximum of 99 total horsepower to the wheels, yielding a power-to-weight ratio similar to the bigger Prius.
Performance is not the priority and Toyota quotes a conservative 0-60 time of 11.5 seconds. We routinely did it in the middle-10s, however, about what we get from the big Prius. Those figures are not quick by anyone's stopwatch. Prius c will run up to 1.5 miles on battery alone while staying under 25 mph with a very light foot, and we managed half a mile of moderate hills and start/stop before the gasoline engine came on with 1 of 8 bars showing in the battery state of charge gauge (each bar equals about 1/10 of a kilowatt-hour). Usually traffic, acceleration or speed got the gas engine participating much sooner. In traffic, we never found ourselves lacking power to keep up comfortably.
An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) doesn't work the way most CVTs do but the results are similar. To keep engine and electric motor speeds in the most efficient range for the performance the driver asks for, the speeds are variable, so mashing the gas pedal will result in engine revs and noise that don't let up until you back off the gas. At full throttle it is normal for the Prius c to sound like a ski boat pulling a skier up.
EPA ratings peg the mileage at 53/46 mpg City/Highway, or 50 mpg Combined. We averaged 50 mpg in mixed driving. A hyper-miler proudly broke 70 mpg, but the resulting driving style showed a lack of consideration and angered and frustrated other drivers. It's worth noting we can achieve 32 mpg in a 1-ton 4WD pickup using hyper-miler techniques. Despite our 50 mpg average we posted data display eco scores of just 16 to 33 out of 100. Let's hope Prius c drivers don't try to achieve perfect scores, at least not when they're in front of us.
By comparison, a regular Prius gets an EPA-rated 51/48 mpg City/Highway, with the same 50 mpg Combined rating. The advantage in city mileage for the Prius c can be attributed primarily to its lighter weight, a smaller gas engine and lighter wheels and tires than used on the regular Prius. At higher speeds, the superior aerodynamics of the Prius account for its better highway economy (a longer car is easier to make aerodynamic). If you drive efficiently, using the onboard display or merely your brain, the Prius c achieves better mileage in slower conditions. Hybrids rarely achieve EPA-estimated numbers at the higher speeds of freeways and interstates due to aerodynamic drag. If you spend more miles driving at freeway speeds or if you haul around a lot of people (which will have less effect on the big car's performance than the smaller one's), then you'd be better off saving up the extra money for the Prius.
The Prius c brake pedal triggers regeneration wherein the drivetrain uses the car's momentum to recharge the battery pack. For max economy you want to touch the pedal just enough to engage this function (and the brake lights); a hard press of the pedal engages the wheel brakes and your momentum, and the fuel that created it, is converted to heat. This is why the brake pedal feels light and touchy, a feeling you can learn to use to achieve peak efficiency.
Prius c shares some background with the Yaris and it rides and handles much the same as most compact cars. Suspension design is chosen with maximum cabin space in mind. With room for four or five, a 17 cubic-foot cargo area, a battery pack and a 9.5-gallon gas tank, in this footprint Toyota has succeeded. The Prius c has a solid ride, approaching bouncy only on bad roads. It stays relatively flat in corners because the weight is kept low, and it goes where you point it. Ultimate grip levels are low because of its slim tires designed for low rolling resistance, but the handling is predictable and fine for novice drivers.
Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are available on the Prius c Four, a wider, low-profile version of the Bridgestone Turanza tires all Prius c models come with. The 16-inch wheels and tires produce more cornering and braking power with no big detriment to ride quality, but they also change the steering settings. Despite wider tires the steering feels lighter than on the 15-inch wheels and it's quicker, but the 16-inch wheels don't turn nearly as tightly: it goes from 31.4 feet needed for a U-turn to 37.4 feet, the space many mid-size sedans and crossovers need. That's a big difference. We recommend the 15-inch wheels and tires.
Heavy acceleration up an on-ramp brings engine noise. Once at cruising speed most noise comes from wind or the road. It's not loud but reinforces the notion this is primarily a city runabout. There is a fan for the battery pack on the left rear floor but even in hard driving we never heard it; we do hear it occasionally on the big Prius, either because that's a quieter car or the fan inlet is up higher and noisier.
Superlatives like the best mileage of anything without a plug, very good maneuverability, electronics available or standard to appease younger or tech-savvy types, and relatively low pricing for an eco-friendly hybrid are the Prius c strengths. For the moderate purchase and operating costs it is hard to beat in urban congestion, and if your commute or locale changes to more highway operation, you could easily trade it for a Prius or Prius v.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from La Jolla, California.