By Al Vinikour
The Toyota Prius—arguably the vehicle that started the hybrid revolution and, since its introduction 15 years ago, has sold more than two million units—continues to grow. First came the larger Prius v for those families that needed a bit more room and carrying capacity, but still wanted a hybrid powertrain. Next came the Prius c (the “c” is lower case and represents the word “city”), a car designed for urban dwellers and new families on a budget. I have yet to drive the larger Prius model and take it to soccer practice, the big box stores and wherever else you’re supposed to use a small SUV competitor, but I did spend a week with the little guy. The closest it got to a big city was the suburbs, where it earned a grade higher than “c”.
Though it was designed to function as an urban-friendly vehicle with hatchback utility, city fuel economy and a city runabout, fun-to-drive personality, the Prius c has an appeal that extends far beyond that of a younger buyer using it for his daily ride. Not only does it provide an entry into the Prius family for new customers, it appeals to older buyers looking to add to the family fleet or those looking to downsize; neither of whom would have considered the standard Prius because it is too big for their needs. That’s one reason it sports a wide array of available convenience and advanced in-car electronics features that one wouldn’t normally associate exclusively with a targeted “green” audience. These items make the Prius c an “all-day” vehicle, that is one you could drive all day long and not mind at all.
There’s a reason for this that goes beyond equipment levels. Toyota engineers located the key powertrain components in such a way that they help improve interior room and handling. The hybrid battery pack and fuel tank are positioned beneath the rear seat to enhance weight distribution and lower the center of gravity. The 68-lb battery pack is located just ahead of the 9.5-gallon fuel tank. This makes it more stable and willing to change direction when asked, and it does. The Prius c is one fun little scooter. This is somewhat surprising since it’s based on a stretched Toyota Yaris platform, and “burdened” with a hybrid powertrain. “Green” and “fun” usually aren’t used in the same sentence. Furthermore, the Prius c has an interior volume of 87.4 ft3 and 17.1 ft3 of cargo volume, figures that belie the small exterior. Like the average buyer, the storage area liberal, too. The 2,500-lb Prius c has 17.1 ft3 of cargo space.
Those exterior dimensions are rather amazing. Compared to the standard Prius Hatchback, the Prius c has a 5.9-in shorter wheelbase, sits 1.8-in lower, is 2.0-in narrower, and a surprising 19.1-in shorter overall. Combine this with a MacPherson strut front and tuned torsion beam rear suspension, and the 15-in wheels of my test car (16-in alloy wheels are available on the Three and Four trim levels), and you get a car that is small, nimble and a hoot to drive. Unless you push it right up to the limit, the Prius c corners pretty flat and doesn’t understeer excessively. It also has a comfortable ride. Editor Sawyer and I worried that this wouldn’t be the case when we drove the car on its launch in Florida (home of straight, smooth, flat roads) because we live in the pockmarked Midwest. We shouldn’t have worried. Even though sharp bumps can be a bit harsh, the overall ride is quite comfortable, especially for a small, short wheelbase car.
The Prius c is something else, too. It’s quiet. Library quiet. That quiet extends beyond the silence at stoplights when the engine shuts off and you’re sitting there running on battery power. It’s also quiet outside. Too quiet, in fact. Toyota adds a slight “whirring” noise to warn the visually impaired and terminally inattentive of your presence. (You don’t hear this sound from inside the car.)
What about the engine? Surely you have to hear the engine slaving away under the hood, right? Wrong. The 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder has Toyota’s VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) and produces 73 hp at 4,800 rpm, and 82 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. On their own, that’s not an earth-shattering amount of power. That’s where the electric motor’s extra 60 horsepower comes into play. Simple math would suggest the Prius c has a total of 133 hp, but you’d have to be from Indiana to believe that. Hybrid powertrains aren’t a case of simple addition and subtraction and, since I’m from Indiana, I’m not sure why and don’t care to figure it out. Combined, the Hybrid Synergy Drive produces 99 horsepower total. What does that mean in the real world?
First, you’re not going to look like a test pilot from the 1950s propelled by a rocket sled as the force rubberizes your face to the point of having your cheeks flap like a hummingbird’s wings. Second, it’s entirely adequate for the mission this car has been assigned. Despite our dislike of some continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), the one mated to this motor is smooth and consistent, with very little of the “moaning” noise you get from the engine as the transmission uses its variable pulleys to accelerate the car without demanding a lot of rpms from the engine. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the gas engine/electric motor combination pretty much eliminates these situations, making the driving experience more pleasant.
There are three driving modes: Norma, Eco and EV. Generalissimo (“Editor” to those of you not fluent in sarcasm) Sawyer isn’t a fan of these “pick your own” settings,. He believes there are enough sensors and computer power on the average vehicle to automatically choose the most optimal setting for the driving conditions. In most cases, he’s right (just don’t tell him I said that), but a car like the Prius c has an unconventional powertrain and appeals to a buyer that buys a hybrid for a specific set of reasons. He wants to be able to choose. Picking Eco mode reduces overall energy consumption by governing climate control and throttle input to improve fuel efficiency. EV mode, under certain conditions, allows the vehicle to be driven solely by electric power for a short distance (under one mile) while remaining below 25 mph. Normal is, well, normal, and the mode in which I kept the Prius c almost all of the time. It was good for approximately 45 mpg.
I can hear you now: “But Al, isn’t the Prius c rated at 53 mpg city, making it the most fuel-efficient hybrid that you don’t have to plug in?” Yes it is, but I didn’t spend all of my time driving on in the city at a steady-state speed, junior. In fact, I spent very little time trolling the “urban environment” and more time on the highway where the Prius c is rated at 46 mpg. So, even though I didn’t keep accurate fuel logs, I came very close to the car’s EPA rating while running with traffic. And, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, the speeds normal people drive—not to mention the posted limit in most states—is higher than the average “highway” speed on the EPA’s dynamometer. I may be a Hoosier by birth, but even I know the real world numbers are pretty good.
There are four trim offerings: One through Four. My test car was a Three. Despite the number, it wasn’t painted black and white with Goodwrench decals on the side, and didn’t look anything like a Chevy Lumina Coupe. Instead, the color was the decidedly bright Habanero, which is red, like the pepper. Other colors include Moonglow, Summer Rain Metallic, Blue Streak Metallic, Absolutely Red, Blue Sand Pearl, Magnetic Gray Metallic, Classic Silver Metallic and Super White. Light Blue Gray Black fabric (I’m not kidding) is the only interior color.
The base Prius c One base comes standard with automatic climate control, tilt-telescope steering wheel with audio, climate, multi-information display and Bluetooth hands free phone controls; and remote keyless entry with illuminated entry. Move up to the Two and you add a 6-speaker audio system, variable intermittent windshield wipers, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, cruise control, engine immobilizer, center console with armrest and storage compartment, and a cargo area tonneau cover.
Grade Three (my favorite when growing up in Valparaiso, I spent a lot of time there) adds a Display Audio system with Navigation and Entune. This adds a 6.1-in touchscreen, Sirius XM Satellite Radio capability, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, USB port with iPod connectivity and control, a vehicle information display with customizable settings, and advanced voice recognition. The Entune system includes Bing and Pandora; real-time info including traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports, and stocks; and iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable. Access to Entune services is complimentary for three years. In addition, the Prius c Three grade includes color-keyed outside door handles with touch-sensor lock/unlock, a tilt/telescope steering wheel with audio, climate, multi-information display, Bluetooth hands free phone and voice command controls, a Touch Tracer Display, and a Smart Key System on the front doors and liftgate with Push Button Start and remote illuminated entry. The Prius c Three adds the option of 15-in alloy wheels and a power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade as options. My car had steel wheels and the moonroof.
The Prius c Four gets 15-in, eight-spoke alloy wheels, Softex-trimmed heated front seats, color-keyed heated power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators, and integrated fog lamps. Optional equipment includes larger 16-in, eight-spoke alloy wheels with 195/50R-16 tires and a power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade. MSRP for the 2012 Prius c One is $19,080 and goes up to $23,360 for the Prius c Four. These prices are $130 higher for the 2013 model, but are offset by minor interior upgrades on the Two, Three and Four.
TVD Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
With the advent of the Toyota Prius c there’s no longer the need for the owner and his or her occupants to be thought of as a bunch of toilet paper-recycling tree huggers. That type doesn’t drive around in a spirited vehicle like the Prius c. They prefer their rides to be ugly, because ugly makes a statement about their superiority in choosing a vehicle whose goodness extends beyond the superficial. Say what you will about the Prius c’s looks if you must. It’s personality and fun-to-drive character more than make up for any perceived aesthetic shortcomings. Besides, I think it’s kind of cute.
2012 Toyota Prius c Three
Options: Power tilt/slide moonroof ($850)
Destination charge: $760
Price as tested: $23,245
Engine: Transverse 1.5-liter inline Atkinson cycle four-cylinder. Cast aluminum block and heads. Dual over head cams with continuously variable valve timing, four valves per cylinder.
Horsepower: 73 @ 4800
Torque: 82 lb-ft @ 4000
Hybrid system: Permanent magnet AC synchronous motor, sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride battery pack.
Torque: 125 lb-ft torque.
Net hybrid system horsepower: 99.
EPA mileage rating: 53 city/46 highway/50 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Electrically assisted power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar/Torsion beam axle.
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/Drums. ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
Dimensions (in inches)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 9.5
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 17.1
Anti-corrosion: 6 years/Unlimited miles
Powertrain: 6 years/60,000 miles
Vehicle: 3 years/36,000 miles
Hybrid Components: 8 years/100,000 miles.
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 3 years.
Scheduled Maintenance: 24 months/25,000 miles.