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2012 Toyota Prius C: Drive review by AutoWeek

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What is it?

The diminutive C is the fourth hybrid Toyota to get the Prius name, after the original, the larger V and the coming plug-in model. It is also the smallest, the least expensive and the most efficient. It might even be the most fun to drive, though in the case of anything with the Prius name badge, "fun" is still relative.

To make the Prius C, Toyota took the compact Yaris five-door and added a battery pack under the back seat and its patented Hybrid Synergy Drive under the hood. The nickel-metal-hydride battery pack holds 0.87 kilowatt-hour and weighs 68 pounds. The whole hybrid system is 14 percent lighter than the one in the regular Prius. The powerplant combines a 1.5-liter inline-four operating in the Atkinson cycle (since the electric motors take care of launches) with two motor-generators for a combined system output of 99 hp. That power is routed to the front wheels through a planetary gear set that feels pretty much like a CVT, with a CVT's perceived slip.

The Yaris was redesigned last year and offers room for five and modular luggage space, thanks to optional 60/40-split fold-down rear seats. The dash is loaded with a decent amount of infotainment and more engine-performance analytics than you can throw a laptop at. You can measure your driving efficiency in several ways on the 6.1-inch screen, everything from your ECO score on a scale of 1 to 100, up to the cost of your drive based on whatever price of fuel you typed in before you left. It's a statistician's dream cruiser.

What is it like to drive?

With 99 hp pulling around 2,496 pounds, the Prius C is not exactly sporty off the line. But, while Toyota claimed 0 to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds, we did manage to get a 10.6 seconds on a slight uphill section of Highway 1 at sea level. Still, 10.6 isn't really in sporty territory, either. We drove two of the four trim levels of the car--the Prius C Four with 16-inch wheels and a Prius C One with 15s. The car with the 16-inch wheels is supposed to be tuned for what chief engineer Satoshi Ogiso said was a "zippy feel." Zippy is relative. It might have been a little better than the C One, but the difference was almost negligible.

All four models ride on low-rolling-resistance tries, either 175/65R-15s on the One, Two and Three trim levels or 195/50R-16s optional on the Four. As with everything on the planet in this class, the front end sits on MacPherson struts and the rear on a torsion beam. We never got to drive the Prius C on anything other than a semisuburban loop cycle, but never did it rise to the level of really fun. The Chevrolet Sonic, a nonhybrid competitor that's about the same size and shape, felt fun to drive.

Do I want it?

Most things on the Prius C are geared toward efficiency, and with EPA mileage figures expected to be 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined, Toyota has really succeeded in this regard. The 53 mpg city is the best on the market without a plug-in battery helping. Ogiso-san said a plug-in hybrid was not possible in this configuration, but then quickly admitted that this car comes with a compact spare tire under the rear floor that you could potentially take out and then stuff another battery in its place. As it is, you can drive up to a mile and a half in EV mode as long as you ease on the throttle and don't exceed 26 mph. So it's good for sneaking back into the house late at night, should the need arise. Just don't set off the alarm.

There is still the common $5,000 premium for a hybrid compared with the cost of the same car with a standard gasoline-powered drivetrain. But with the Prius C, the entry cost for the hybrid segment has been opened up to a whole new range of buyers. The Prius C starts at $19,710, including destination, for a pretty well-equipped C One. A regular Prius starts at a little more than $23,000. The C Four (explosive!) gets a bunch of stuff you don't need, like alloy wheels and fog lamps, for $23,990. We'd say the C Three is a pretty good deal, with navigation, Entune and the nice display screen for $22,395.

In any case, the Prius C surely is the least expensive new hybrid you can buy and the most efficient non-plug-in on the market today. That's a lot in such a small package.

2012 Toyota Prius C

On Sale: March

Base Price: $19,710

Drivetrain: 1.5-liter, 73-hp, 82-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle four; motor-generator 1, 56 hp; motor-generator 2, 60 hp; 99 system net hp; FWD, ECVT

Curb Weight: 2,496 lb

0-60 MPH: 10.6 sec (AW)

Fuel Economy: 50 mpg (mfr est)

Read more: 2012 Toyota Prius C: Drive review - Autoweek

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