February 22, 2012
By Kim Reynolds
Photos Michael Shaffer
Sixteen months ago, I committed one of my better blunders when I declared the Honda Insight the more important car compared with the then-just-introduced third-generation Prius. My thinking? Economy car shoppers are notorious scrooges, and the Insight's lower base price would make it the car to blow open the doors to hybrid affordability.
Guess what? Ebenezers are willing pay a bit more for a nicer car. The Prius went on to give the Honda a terrible smacking in the showroom. And now comes the smaller and cheaper Prius C, the car prompted by that onetime Insight threat that now faces the Insight's very same challenges.
Prius C pricing ranges from $19,710 to our test car's $23,990, and it's the third member in the Prius family, which that recently grew to two with the bigger Prius V and will become four with the early 2012 arrival of the plug-in variant of the original-recipe Prius (now called the Liftback). While the "V" in Prius V has been a little confusing (The number five? Churchill's victory sign? Nope -- it stands for "versatility"), the mystery of the Prius C's "C' is permanently solved if you associate it with "city." As in city mileage. Which, at 53 mpg per the EPA, is the best you can buy short of taking a flying technological leap into the plug-in pool (comparatively, its 46 mpg highway number seems pedestrian).
Underpinned by the Yaris' suspension bits and some of its platform bones, the C's architecture quickly swaps to a revised set of blueprints as it rises from the ground. It's 2.5 inches shorter, slightly sleeker in profile, and sports a 0.28 drag coefficient -- pretty good for a stubby car, and details like tiny vortex generators on the side mirrors do their part. Our staff was divided about its styling, the mistaken younger ones liking its complicated, sculptural flourishes; the older, correct ones not seeing enough visual linkage to the original Prius.
The C's gold-standard Hybrid Synergy Drive has been shrunk to suit its diminutive dimensions, including a smaller, Yaris-sourced 1.5-liter, under-square Atkinson-cycle engine, a more compact motor/generator planetary gear assembly, tidier power control electronics, and a 29 percent smaller nickel-metal hydride battery that's trim enough to reside completely beneath the rear seat. (Plus it's warranted for 10 years and 150,000 miles!) Combined system power is 99 hp. The car's extra hardware adds about 145 pounds, and the predictable result is a 10.6-second 0-60 mph time. Other notable developments include a beltless air conditioner compressor and water pump, heat insulation in the roof to cut sun loading, and newfangled airbags in the front seat bottom cushions for securing your body position.
Swimming in its natural aquarium -- city driving -- the C negotiates the real world with adequate if indifferent small-car reflexes. A little surprising, given that our car - nicely equipped in top-grade level 4 trim -- turns more eagerly with its optional quicker steering ratio and 16-inch wheels, which are an inch bigger but also increase the turning circle from 31.4 to 37.4 feet. At highway speeds, however, that 99 horsepower can make the C feel as if it's motoring through an atmosphere a lot thicker than planet Earth's. Again, repeat: 99 hp and 50 overall mpg. So this is no surprise. However, its oddly brittle ride quality -- sometimes degenerating into a snare drum drumroll -- was. Toyota needs to find a compromise between this and the bigger Prius Liftback's excessively mushy motions.
The news is brighter inside, where our drivers generally gave a thumbs-up to its more conventional, less Prius-y design; terrific smartphone-based Entune infotainment system; and most of all its standard 3.5-inch color screen. Of its clever set of displays, our favorite -- ECO savings -- is downright Pavlovian. Like the Russian dog getting a biscuit for a trick, entering the price of gas and the mileage number of some car you particularly despise lets "ECO savings" report exactly how much dough you're saving by driving this car and not that one. This makes you salivate for more, and maybe press the Eco button, which dulls throttle response, curbs the climate control's enthusiasm, and decreases the throttle's maximum opening by 12 percent. Hmm, the Lamborghini Aventador's combined mpg is 13...cool, we'll see who's so **** smart now!
The trouble comes when you turn your calculating not to the similarly priced, lower-mpg Insight, but to the Yaris. The C's 17-mpg advantage (50 to 33 combined) comes at a premium of perhaps $4000. At $3.50 per gallon gas, that means it'll take exactly one zillion years of typical driving to pay it off. Relative to the medium-priced Prius, or Camry or Fusion Hybrids, both the Insight's and Prius C's hybridization premium seems to be a noticeably bigger proportion of their price.
Getting from the here to there of needing an inexpensive, high mileage car to driving home in a Prius C is like stepping across a wide stream where you'll need to rest your weight on a few specific rocks in between. Presumably, one of them is isolating yourself against gas price shocks. Maybe another is caring greatly about CO2 emissions. But one rock ought to be that the car drives adequately well. As the Insight discovered, these stepping stones are sometimes slippery. And that'll be a challenge for the Prius C as well.
2012 Toyota Prius C
PRICE AS TESTED
Front engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
1.5L/73-hp/82-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus 60-hp electric motor; 99 hp comb
Cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)
2565 lb (61/39%)
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT
157.3 x 66.7 x 56.9 in
17.8 sec @ 76.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH
0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT
28.7 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY
64/73 kW-hrs/100 miles