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The Prius revolution is officially on at Toyota dealers, where shoppers will soon find four times the number of Prii on offer.

While three new Priuseseses complement the “standard” Prius, which Toyota now calls the liftback, the most important is inarguably the Prius c seen here. Whether that’s c for compact or city is up for debate, but there’s no denying that the Prius c is challenged with the task of luring in a wide range of new hybrid buyers at the lower end of the market.

Although the Prius c shares some of its architecture and much of its mission in life with the Toyota Yaris, the two are vastly different five-doors. The c boasts a smaller overall footprint but a longer wheelbase, as well as its own styling and, of course, a hybrid powertrain.

Small power, small package
In place of the Yaris’ conventional four-cylinder and manual or automatic transmissions, the c uses a thoroughly downsized version of the so-called Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain found in the liftback.

Essentially, Toyota took everything in the standard Prius and shrunk it, which leaves the c with a combined 99 net horsepower (couldn’t they have eked out another pony?) from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing and an electric motor/generator. The gasoline and electric mills send power to the front wheels through a CVT. It’s not the kind of stuff that will get a rise out of any enthusiast, but the Prius c’s downright lithe sub-2,500 lbs. curb weight is intriguing. Helping keep the Prius c light is its 120-cell nickel metal hydride battery, which tucks under the rear seat. Why not a higher tech lithium ion battery? Simple: Tech costs more, and the Prius c has to be significantly cheaper than the liftback (which will get a lithium ion unit soon) to succeed.

The electric motor is capable of motoring the Prius c on its own for about a mile if the driver is especially gentle with the skinny pedal and it helps the gas engine motivate the car from a complete stop to 60 mph in 11.5 seconds. An EV-only mode is available with the press of a console-mounted button, but hard acceleration will override the system for some gas-powered help when needed.

In practice, the Prius c doesn’t struggle to keep up with urban traffic, but it is sluggish on big hills and during highway passing. The CVT does its best to keep the little engine in its power range, although that means that there’s a lot of noise coming from under the hood and not much action for the digital speedometer. The upside to this limited power situation is astounding fuel economy: We kept up with traffic on various mixed routes through the hip city streets and winding Hill Country byways around Austin, Texas, and we never saw less than 50 mpg. Officially, Toyota thinks the EPA will rate the c at what will likely be a conservative 53/46 city/highway mpg.

Fast albeit numb steering tuning and a taut suspension give the car a more nimble, tossable feel in the city than you’ll find in the larger Prius. Credit an ultra-stiff structure for helping the c overcome its dinky 175-width tires and 100.4-inch wheelbase with a generally upmarket-feeling ride quality that betters the Yaris. Once up to highway speeds, the c feels remarkably planted, although wind noise is prominent. An optional 16-inch alloy wheel package for the range-topping model brings with it even faster steering tuning, which does actually impart a modestly zippier feel to the Prius c. Make no mistake, however: Prius c has clearly not been designed for track days or cross-country jaunts, and Toyota thinks that will be just fine for its target market.

Looking the part
The five-door hatchback shares no styling cues with the larger Prius, which makes it one of the more striking subcompacts. Because it eschews the wind tunnel-proven shape of the standard Prius for a more conventional five-door look, the c’s drag coefficient is higher than the liftback. Toyota hopes that its not-so-Prius-looking design will bring in buyers who might not otherwise consider such a model. Unlike the liftback, the c is a pleasant-looking subcompact that doesn’t necessarily look naked without a “coexist” bumper sticker.

Inside, the look is also more traditional than the main Prius, another move designed to appeal to a wide audience. A fairly conventional dashboard layout groups a digital speedometer and a high-resolution LCD screen on the top of the dashboard. No tachometer is included, though the LCD features some innovative functions to allow drivers to track how much they’re “saving” by driving a Prius c instead of another, programmable “comparison” car. The system won’t let you pick specific cars to compare to, but drivers can input a fuel economy number to simulate, say, another car or their old car. Another screen groups your three most efficient trips in a nifty Olympic podium-like display to allow drivers to compete against themselves. Generally, the screens are simple to sort their way through thanks to convenient standard steering wheel controls.

The front passenger compartment is roomy enough and the mood is brightened by a number of attractively grained surfaces. The range-topping c features a few soft touch materials, but other Prius cs make due with hard trim that is about par for the class. Two seat designs are on offer: A simple four-way style for the base model and a more heavily bolstered, height adjustable (for the driver) design on other trim levels. Standard cloth seats are augmented by an eco-friendly neoprene-like Softex material on the range-topping model. Back seat space is limited, making the c an iffy choice for family buyers, though the 17.1 cubic foot trunk is nicely sized.

At $18,950, the Prius c One base model isn’t cheap, but it does bring with it a decent amount of standard equipment. That LCD screen is joined by automatic climate control, Bluetooth and nine airbags (including two built into the front seat bottoms to keep passengers in position during a severe wreck). Three additional trim levels (Two, Three and, you guessed it, Four) add more features, although we think the lower-rung One and Two models represent the best value (our red photo car was a zero option c One). The price premium for the Prius c over subcompact rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic is around $2,000, but a real world 15 mpg advantage might actually make the math work in the Prius c’s favor for many owners.

Leftlane’s bottom line
Subcompact buyers who prioritize fuel economy – and let’s face it, that’s most buyers in this segment – should flock to the high-mpg Prius c. As a gateway into the world of hybrids, it immediately makes mincemeat of the Honda Insight.

Whether it can convince buyers to step up from other subcompacts remains to be seen, but we’d be willing to hedge our bets in its favor.

2013 Toyota Prius c base price range, $18,950 to $23,230.

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