The Toyota Prius has been the darling of hypermilers, the eco chic, and frankly, those who just want to save some gas since 2001. In the 11 years that the Prius has been out, it’s been available only as a sedan, or basically until 2012. That is when a second model, the Prius v debuted. Then, going the opposite way of the Prius v, is the new subcompact Prius c. This five door hatchback is based on the Yaris chassis and gets the best city MPG of the Prius family.
Although the Prius is adored by some, it is still the butt of countless automotive enthusiasts’ jokes, hated by many simply for existing, and often mocked by rapidly moving motorists. Can the Prius c change the minds of enthusiasts? I’m guessing it can’t. However, it certainly is a different Prius experience.
Starting with the exterior, the Prius c looks more like a Yaris than anything else in the Prius lineage. The rear end, with its high-mounted taillights, makes it distinctive from both Yaris and other Prius models. The styling is basic and functional, but not much more than that. Neither ugly or beautiful, the car is inoffensively styled.
More intriguing is the interior. Although featuring a lot of hard plastic, there are various textures, colors, and fabrics that make the inside much less boring than either other Prius model. With blue accents here and there, a few of us said that it looked it bit like something out of the movie Tron. All kidding aside, the techy interior is a high point. It’s comfortable, airy, and functions with relative ease, even for a tech-laden hybrid. Like other Priuses, I could probably write an entire 1,000 word article about the tech features alone, but I’ll just say this: The two LCD screens will let you know almost anything about the car. Every fuel stat. What the car’s powertrain is doing. How efficiently you’re driving. Outside temperature. Average speeds, and on, and on, and on. This is all aside from the Entune infotainment system that includes apps such as Pandora, Bing search, navigation, and more. For me, some of this stuff got distracting. It’s no wonder so many Prius owners drive these cars slowly—there’s so much info to keep up with. Frankly, I noticed myself ogling my “driving score,” my average fuel economy, and was flipping between eco mode, EV mode, and standard driving modes. Yes, during my week with the car, I was “that guy” in a Prius. I apologize.
The interior is also very similar to a Yaris in terms of space. The rear cargo area, which looks almost identical to my Yaris, is smallish, but the rear seats fold down for plenty of cargo room. Up front, the two buckets seats are comfortable, but not terribly supportive. My wife, Mercedes, thought the headrests felt thin. Rear seat room is generous for the car’s size. We did like the easy-to-use climate control, which also kept us cool on those very hot days, and I really like the temperate controls on the steering wheel. The overall gauge cluster display is easy to read, too—and there’s no shortage of reading material.
The Prius c, which weighs in at 2,500 lbs., makes 74 horsepower and 82 ft./lbs. of torque. When paired with its electric motor, horsepower jumps up to 99. Power is routed through a CVT, and there is a “B” mode which engages the regenerative brakes to help charge the batteries. Around town, the car gets up and goes pretty well up to about 40 MPH; the electric assist surely helps. However, there is not much passing power above 55 MPH, especially in the hills. With temperatures in Portland in the 90s during our review period, we ran the air conditioning a lot. Add this to the already tepid passing power, and the Prius c feels extra pokey. We had a number of foot-to-the-floor passing experiences that generated more noise than movement. And although no normally aspirated four-cylinder car is great with the air conditioning on when passing, the Prius c felt exceptionally slow. But this is a gas-sipping hybrid, right? No one is expecting this car to be fast, right? Right?
In EV mode, this thing is whisper quiet. However, above 40 MPH, we noticed lots of wind noise from areas around the side mirrors (on both sides). Normally a bit of wind noise wouldn’t bother me much, but this was excessive. To be frank, it was more wind noise than I’ve heard from any new car I’ve reviewed.
OK, so it’s a bit slow, a bit noisy at speed. How does it handle? About like you’d likely expect. The car rides on narrow 175/65/15 low rolling resistance tires, which doesn’t help in the corners. The steering feels slow and vague at speed, too. There is also a lot of body lean.
Alas, the Prius c is not a sports car, a race car, or a “driver’s car.” It is, however, frugal. Rated at 53 city and 46 highway, it has the highest city MPG rating of the entire Prius family. Over our 250 miles with the Prius, many of which were with the A/C on, we managed 47 MPG. And while I was cognizant of my driving so as to maximize my fuel consumption, I wasn’t anal retentive about it. If I had to pass, I took it out of eco mode and mashed the throttle. If I needed to merge, I stomped on the gas. I’m no hypermiler, and don’t know if I could be. But 47 MPG is pretty hard to argue against. If you were a hypermiler, I’m sure you could get that 53 MPG easily, and probably much more. So this, my friends, is what the Prius c does quite well.
I have a number of good friends that are “car people.” They are enthusiasts. They drive Corvettes. They ride motorcycles. They like sexy cars. A number of them said they’d consider buying a Prius due to the gas mileage. My dad, the owner of a Jeep Cherokee, a Corvette C6, and a Volvo S60 T5 put it well. He said if all you’re looking for is a car that gets great mileage, is reliable, comfortable, and is solely for getting from point A to point B, then why not a Prius? And I can agree with that. If you’ve got fun cars, motorcycles, boats, helicopters, jet packs, tanks, or perhaps a Lun-class Ekranoplan that don’t get great mileage on your 30 mile commute, I can see why you might want a Prius c that is small, easy to park, and great on gas. If you’re looking for steering feedback, road feel, great cornering ability, and sporty intentions, you’re not going to be happy with the Prius c (or any other Prius). But, like my dad said, if you’re looking for a frugal, comfortable commuter car, this might fit the bill. Plus, it has a great turning radius, which is great for those crowded parking lots. I feel the Pruis c at least has some personality to it. Certainly more than a standard Prius or larger Prius v. It’s scrappier, smaller, and a bit, well, different.
The Prius c “one” starts at just under $20,000. Our test model, a “four” trim level, stickered at a tick above $23,000, which included the power moonroof. A top-of-the-line Toyota Yaris SE, which is a lot sportier to drive, but gets 18 MPG less starts at $17,960 (combined MPG with the four-speed automatic, respectively). That’s about a $5,000 difference. You can do the math with regards to the fuel savings vs. the extra price of a hybrid. I estimate the savings in fuel to be about $650 a year—nearly an eight year break-even cost in fuel. Is it worth it? That’s not for me to decide. However, Toyota sold 3065 Prius c models in July, ’12 (according to Car and Driver). That’s more than twice as many Yaris models as Toyota sold in the same month.
The Prius c, thus far, is a hit with consumers. Will it every garner the acceptance of enthusiasts? Likely not. But if you’re looking for an ultra-thrifty hybrid subcompact, this is it.