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2012 Toyota Prius c

The Baby Prius


2012 Toyota Prius C

The Toyota Prius c was engineered to appeal to young people.

Photo: Aaron Gold

Toyota has decided to turn the Prius into a family into a family of cars. Last year, they added the momma Prius, the Prius v (which I suppose could be the daddy Prius; I've no idea how to determine its gender). Now we have the baby Prius, the Prius c. Priced $4,000 cheaper than the standard Prius and sized a foot and a half shorter, this is the Prius for would-be hybrid buyers on a budget, or those who want the Prius' amazing fuel economy in a smaller package.

First Glance: Smaller isn't necessarily better
Making a baby Prius isn't as easy as it sounds. The Prius' aerodynamic shape is a major contributor to its excellent fuel economy, particularly on the highway. But grafting the teardrop rear end onto the shorter Prius c would have meant taking a bite out of rear-seat headroom, as is the case with the Honda Insight, so Toyota engineers went with a more upright back end. That's great for back-seat passengers, but it's not so great for aerodynamics: The Prius c's coefficient of drag is 0.28, significantly higher than the standard Prius' 0.25 (and, as it happens, identical to the Hyundai Elantra).

That meant the only way to get better fuel. economy would be to cut down weight, so Toyota chopped and pared mercilessly. They fitted a smaller engine and reworked the hybrid transmission, control unit and battery pack to make them smaller and lighter. Even the upholstery gets in on the act -- top-of-the-line models get a leather substitute called SofTex, which is half the weight of vinyl. All told, Toyota's boffins were able to trim the Prius c down to 2,496 lbs, which is lighter than a conventionally-powered Honda Fit. Impressive!

The end result: EPA fuel economy estimates of 53 MPG city, 46 MPG highway and 50 MPG combined. Compare that to the standard Prius' 51/48/50, and you'll see where c's aerodynamics put it at a disadvantage -- but those numbers are still good enough to make it the most fuel-efficient internal-combustion car sold in the US.

In the Driver's Seat: Something for the young folks

This being a youth-market sort of car, Toyota decided it needed a youth-market interior. I can't say I'm a huge fan; I think the dashboard looks a bit disharmonious, and the way the doors line up with the dash -- perhaps I should say, the way they don't line up with the dash -- makes it look like they came from two different cars. When I reviewed Honda's CR-Z hybrid, I said the dash looked like it was designed by a twelve-year-old; the Prius c's dash looks like it was designed by a 50 year old trying to imitate what a 12-year-old would design.

Though I'm not a fan of the form, I do like the function. Like other Prius models, the c has a center-mounted dash pod with a digital speedometer, a collection of idiot lights, and a multi-function display screen. Rather than the cheesy two-color unit found on the Prius, the c gets a full-color screen with several modes, including a power-flow display and fuel-economy history. One screen allows you to program in the fuel economy of your old car, and then shows you how much money you've saved on gas by driving a Prius c. But my favorite was the real-time scoring system, which rates your acceleration, cruising and braking performance, coaching you to better fuel economy.

The Prius c is available in four trim levels, called One, Two, Three and Four. Pricing starts at $19,710 ($18,950 plus a manditory $760 destination charge), and includes air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, and a four-speaker CD stereo with USB and Bluetooth. The $20,660 Two model adds cruise control, a height-adjustable driver's seat, cargo cover, and two extra speakers, while the Three adds touch-screen navigation and keyless push-button ignition for $22,395. The Prius c Four tops out the line at $23,990 with SofTex-upholstered heated seats, 15" alloy wheels and fog lights. Options are limited, but include 16" alloy wheels and a sunroof.

On the Road: A different kind of fun The Prius c gets its own unique version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. It's built around a 1.5 liter Atkinson-cycle engine tuned for 73 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque. The engine is notable for being beltless -- all of the accessories, including the water pump, are driven by electric motors. The c gets a smaller, lighter version of the Prius' power-split transmission with two motor-generators, as well as a smaller battery pack. Total net output for the system is 99 horsepower, compared to 134 for the standard Prius. Acceleration is... well, it's rather Prius-like. Thanks to its lighter weight, the Prius is eager to nip through traffic and has adequate power for quick freeway merges, provided you aren't shy with the accelerator pedal. However, steep hills really push the powertrain to its limits.

Like other members of the Prius family, the c has an Eco mode and an EV mode. The former helps drivers get better fuel economy by electronically smoothing out throttle inputs; the latter allows the Prius to run on electricity only at low speeds.

Toyota says they tuned the Prius c to be more fun to drive than the regular Prius. That's not hard; I find organizing my sock draw more fun than driving a regular Prius, and while the little c feels quite a bit more nimble, I wouldn't say the handling is all that entertaining. No, the real fun in the Prius c is seeing what kind of fuel economy you can rack up. I sampled several Prius c models and had no problem topping 50 MPG in each and every one. On my last and longest drive, I headed out to the freeway, cruised at the speed limit, and was averaging just above 60 MPG when I got to my exit. A half-hour of slow stop-and-go city driving dropped my average to just over 57 MPG -- still impressive. On the way back to the hotel, I had to climb the mother of all hills, and I pulled into the valet with 53.5 MPG showing on the trip meter. Had it not been for that darn hill, I'm sure I would have been above 55. (Stupid hill!)

Journey's End: Works as advertised! Toyota has aimed the Prius c at younger buyers who can't swing the payments on a regular Prius, but I think it's also a good choice for would-be Prius owners who don't spend much time on the freeway. The Prius' small size makes for easier parking, and the improved city fuel economy can save you some serious cash on gas, even compared to the regular Prius' stellar fuel economy.

The Prius c's most obvious competitor is the Honda Insight. Priced at $19,120, the Insight undercuts the Prius c by $590. Although the Insight's trunk is smaller -- 15.9 cubic feet vs. the Prius c's 17.1 -- I think it's more usefully shaped than the Toyota's, but the Prius c has more rear-seat headroom and its interior fittings feel more substantial. But none of that really matters, because the Insight only gets around 43 MPG, while the Prius c easily tops 50. Assuming you're buying a hybrid to save gas, there's really no question -- the Prius c is the car to get.

This is the point in my review where I try to come up with a witty, well-worded summation. Let's skip all that and get to the bottom line: Like every member of the Prius family, the Prius c is a brilliant car that works exactly as advertised. It's a smaller, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient Prius. What more can I say? -- Aaron Gold

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