Driven: 2012 Toyota Prius C

By Seyth Miersma

February 08, 2012

 —La Jolla, California

The cars that exist in the present are getting closer and closer to the cars that we’d expected to have, generally speaking, “in the future” just a few years ago. Toyota’s new Prius C is very much a case in point here. A small, lightweight, versatile, hugely efficient machine that blows away what was considered “great” fuel economy a decade ago.
Put the success of the original Prius down to Toyota’s grand, forward-thinking nature, to the upwards creep (and sometimes spiking) of oil/gasoline prices, to the extension of governmental influence in the car industry both in the US and globally, or simply to its own inherent goodness as a practical consumer good, but don’t deny that the thing is wildly successful. The car gets fun poked at it continuously in the enthusiast community—it’s not a driver’s car—but the fact remains that it is a great solution for hundreds of thousands of motorists.
[Read our review of the Toyota Prius V here.]
The new Prius city car (the “C” refers to “City”) takes the familiar hybrid formula and makes it more accessible by lowering the price, without taking away any of the core goodness (fuel economy, ease of use) of the standard model. The Prius C starts at around $19,000, which makes it within the price range of most people who have the wherewithal to buy a new car at all; further, at 50 miles per gallon combined, it offers truly unbeatable fuel economy. The most efficient car, available to almost every driver—that’s Car Of The Future stuff if you ask us. 
In much the same way the larger Prius V has expanded the world’s preeminent hybrid brand into a niche a half a size larger than the standard Prius (now called “liftback” by company PR, for the sake of clarity), the Prius C moves down a size or so. The C is lower (by 1.8 inches), shorter (by 19.1 inches), and much lighter (by more than 500 pounds) than the liftback.
The V and C outliers to the Prius center, neither of which have direct hybrid competition in terms of size, price, and fuel economy, create micro-niches that the Toyota folks believe will slowly bring a much larger volume of customers into the fold. It’s a good long-term strategy, which is centered on the massive brand identity that Prius has developed in the last decade. In terms of actual execution, the Prius C seems to fulfill the important role that Toyota has planned for it.
Despite its notably smaller exterior footprint, the C avoids feeling cramped in the driver or front passenger seat. We drove a sunroof-equipped car and found plenty of space without scraping our head—not an insignificant feat considering your writer is six-feet, five-inches tall—with good leg-, hip-, and elbow-room, too. The back seats are far from capacious, but they’re also better than average for a subcompact vehicle. (Prius C is actually considered a compact vehicle based on interior volume.) Behind the steering wheel, we enjoyed excellent forward visibility (another Prius family hallmark, it seems), and barely noticed obstruction from the thickish C-pillars in the rear view. The rear cargo area has really good capacity even with the 60/40 split rear seats raised—more than enough space for a month’s worth of groceries, your Labrador Retriever’s crate, or the $50 vintage Barcalounger you found on Craigslist.
So, the smaller C doesn’t lose a lot (backseat room and some luxury/tech pieces) to the liftback standard, and the great news for the Prius-inclined is that is doesn’t lose anything in terms of efficiency, either. Now, there are those that will expect that a smaller, lighter car, with a smaller, less powerful engine—Prius C makes do with a 1.5-liter four/electric motor combo, where the Prius has a 1.8-liter mill—should actually get better fuel economy. Depending on how and where you drive it, that might actually be the case. Prius and Prius C both have earned a combined EPA fuel economy rating of 50 mpg, though the C is a bit better around town (53 versus 51 mpg) and the liftback is better on the highway (48 versus 46 in favor of Prius). These largely similar ratings, despite the lower mass, are the result of a few factors: One, the Prius C’s shorter profile and abbreviated rear end make it more difficult to achieve the perfect aerodynamic form that the liftback has. Two, the smaller C has a smaller, less capacious battery system. And three, the lack of mass actually hurts the ability of the regenerative braking system to add power back into the hybrid system.
With all of that said, this Prius C is a feistily efficient little bugger. Compact hybrid or no, we drove the so-called “handing loop” that Toyota had mapped out in and around the coastal California hills, with verve and purpose. We accelerated hard from stops, passed the posted speed limits with regularity, and pushed the car hard everywhere we found an open stretch of road. Amazingly, despite driving like hooligans rather than hypermilers, we couldn’t get the Prius C to return anything worse than about 46 mpg over the 60-mile drive route. On the other extreme, fellow journalists that were driving for maximum fuel economy claimed mpg figures in the 80s. The driving patterns they had to adhere to to get those shocking numbers were, it’s fair to say, soul-crushing, but we were duly impressed, nevertheless.
We came away from our test drives knowing that the Prius C is the new champ in terms of Prius driving/handling dynamics as well. Temper that accolade with the fact that the C need only be better than the Prius and the Prius V to win out, and you’ll see that this is still no hot hatch. And yet, the C didn’t embarrass itself when we drove it aggressively. The car is more firmly sprung than what we’ve come to expect from the Prius family, with good rigidity through the body that translates to fairly confident cornering at reasonably quick speeds. The C will definitely start to roll and dip as the cornering forces pile on, but it does so in a smooth and progressive way that, at least, lets the driver understand where the limits must be.
Steering is not nearly so communicative as the suspension and chassis, but it does benefit from being quite meaty when compared with its Prius family members, and even for the subcompact class in general. Overall effort is not wispy, though there’s not much feedback to help you along, either.
We did a full loop in a Prius C that was shod with the optional sixteen-inch wheels, with wider tires, after finishing up in the standard fifteen-inch wheel car. It was hard to say that the slightly larger wheel was transformative in terms of grip and handling—there weren’t enough very technical, tight stretches of road to really feel the difference—but the ride was certainly firmer with the bigger shoes. What’s more, the larger wheels afforded a bit more feedback (thanks to that ride firmness) through the floorboards and seats. Still, you probably won’t feel compelled to enter your big-wheeled C into the local autocross.
It’s worth noting that, despite being quite a short car overall, the comparatively long wheelbase of the C makes it turn in and rotate like a larger vehicle. Overall stability at highway speeds is increased by these dimensions, which is undoubtedly the point of the exercise for Toyota.  
Stop here in our Prius C review and you’ll have a pretty rosy picture of this small hybrid: spacious for the class, heroically efficient, and decent in terms of ride and handling. Car Of The Future, right? Well, there is a downside to Toyota mixing up a half-pint Prius cocktail, and that downside happens to be the powertrain.
Ask this version of the Hybrid Synergy Drive to return big mpg numbers, and you’ll be rewarded. Ask it to do anything more motivating, and you’re in for some punishment. Let’s say it bluntly: this is a very slow car. Net figures of 99 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque for the engine/electric motor combo don’t sound great to begin with, even in a 2500-pound car, but the truth is even more dawdling than the tale of the tape indicates.
First, a quick positive: Toyota has seemingly tuned the response of the motor/engine to offer maximum thrust at low to mid-range speeds. So, getting up to highway pace from the end of the on-ramp, for instance, is merely tedious, not terrifying. But that’s the best of it, as initial acceleration and top-end power are closer to dreams for the Prius C than they are to motive reality. Toyota claims an 11.5-second 0-60 time for the C, which seems hugely optimistic to us, at least in terms of the feeling of acceleration. Part of this is down to the racket that ensues anytime one actually throttles all the way down to the floor in the car. Between the flat, off-tune drone from the exhaust and the wail of the chugging CVT, you’ll quickly be cured of any devilish desire to “floor it” in this car. (Overall the horrible noise at wide-open throttle is probably a good thing for real-world fuel economy, now that we think on it.)
Beyond the noise it makes when worked hard, the CVT is hardly notable, save for the fact that it is interfaced with via a traditional-looking, floor-mounted lever instead of the usual stubby, blue, Prius-spec transmission mode selector. We’ve got no problem with the more traditional PRDL (actually “PRDB” in the case of the C) selector, but there are those in the Prius fan club that may call foul. Toyota very rationally pointed out that the C’s gear lever was a rather painless way to keep costs down, which seems good.
Who buys this car? Toyota tells us that it’ll be a younger, less affluent buyer than the liftback averages (naturally), and that the C should end up accounting for 10 to 15 percent of Prius family sales. With prices ranging from the base $18,950 through to the low/mid-$20,000 range, the Prius C is priced a few hundred dollars over Honda’s larger Insight hybrid, but is sized to compete with the likes of Ford’s (cheaper) Fiesta hatch. There are no other hybrids that compete directly in this segment, as we mentioned earlier, and Toyota truly believes that the C is simply good enough on its own to bring buyers into the Prius brand. We think that unassuming green-leaning car shoppers all over will find merit with the package here, but can especially rationalize this hybrid for those living in cramped urban settings.
The real truth is that, driving enthusiasts to the contrary, the Prius C, with its sub-$20K price tag and 50-mpg endorsement, will find a boatload of interested parties. It’s no driver’s car, but it could very well be The Future delivered just a little bit early.
VS: Ford Fiesta
If we’re down to brass tacks, and many thrifty shoppers still care about this stuff, you’d have to drive a Prius C for many years to make up the cost difference between the roughly $14K, 33-mpg (combined) Fiesta, and the roughly $19K, 50-mpg Prius C. At least if you’re factoring primarily on fuel costs. Then again, if you’re dogged enough to drive very carefully, everywhere you go, there’s certainly much better economy available out of the C, and probably a faster return on your investment, too.
If you’re a bit more open minded on the subject, you might be swayed by the larger interior volume of the Toyota, the compelling Entune infotainment system, or even the smaller yearly output of carbon emissions. Fun-seekers will pick the Ford, though. (Or a Mini.)
VS: Honda Insight
For about the same amount of money as it’ll take to get the Prius C (a little less), Honda will sell you an Insight hybrid that is a lot more spacious, and that gets gas mileage that is at least in the same ballpark. If you really need a good amount of rear passenger room or cargo space, this is a solid cross-shop.
That said, the C is a far, far nicer place to spend time than the loud, poorly trimmed Insight—which still reigns as perhaps our very least favorite Honda product right now.
2012 Toyota Prius C
Engine: Inline-4/electric motor, 1.5 liters, 16v
Output: 99 hp/125 lb-ft
Weight: 2500 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 53/46 mpg
Base Price: $18,950
On Sale: Spring 2012