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Smaller version of Toyota hybrid gets stellar mileage

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Pete 'n' Pam, Commentary

By any measure, Toyota's Prius hybrid has been a whopping success. The company recently added a fourth Prius model, the Prius c urban runabout. Pete 'n' Pam ran it all over Austin for more than a week.

Pete: This little hybrid is hardly the perfect car, Pam, but I regularly exceeded 55 miles per gallon without even trying. That's incredible city gas mileage, especially when other cars this size are boasting about 40 mpg for the highway.

Pam: Pete, you know you shouldn't even be driving this thing. The ‘c' in Prius c stands for "city," and you're a country boy.

Pete: Beautiful sunsets and clear air get tiresome after a while, so we outliers come here for a gulp of fumes and to see what kind of brainiac cars you all are driving. This little Prius was a nifty one. Toyota says they're selling as fast as weekend breakfast tacos in SoCo.

Pam: Well, there's plenty to like about it, as long as you can overlook the slightly harsh, econo-car feel of the drive.

Pete: The unconventional gas-electric drivetrain is common in all Priuses, as you know, Pam. But this smallest Prius can be the noisiest. The gas engine racing ahead faster than the car's speed is caused by a transmission with almost infinitely variable ratios. Fact is, though, Prius owners quickly get accustomed to it, and the 50-plus mpg seems adequate payback.

Pam: With gas mileage like that, I can handle a little buzz and a few bumps. Besides, it passed one very important test of mine — despite it's Lilliputian size, I was able to fold down the back seat of the Prius c, pop the front wheel off my road bike and slide it in quite easily.

Pete: The Prius c is the size of Toyota's Yaris subcompact, with which it shares parts, and is cleverly packaged to maximize interior space. I had no complaint with front seat room, but some of the interior materials were hard like a Tonka toy. Like the Yaris, the Prius c isn't too much faster than your bicycle, Pam.

Pam: But it comes with an air conditioner, which my bike does not. As the fourth in the line of Priuses, the c follows the original liftback, the plug-in hybrid and the heftier Prius v. It's 19 inches shorter, 2 inches lower and 2 inches skinnier than the original. It's lighter, too, which helps give it that stellar mileage.

Pete: Not only is Prius c the lightest and best-looking Prius, it has a lower center of gravity for better handling and an electronic display that calculates gas mileage in more obscure and pointless ways than other Priuses. Plus, some small cars don't even come with spare tires any more, but the Prius c has one that even flips up in a rear-end crash to help absorb impact.

Pam: I think Toyota should get rid of that electronic display. It's distracting to the point of being dangerous. And a little bit show-offy, too.

Pete: Ha! Prius c owners will use that comparative gas mileage display for a week after they buy the car, then ignore it and just check the primary mpg display. They'll like what they see. But the Prius c's sticker price won't look quite so nifty if they've been cross-shopping other subcompacts. Prius c prices range up to $26,000 or so — that's steep for such a small car.

Pam: Happily, you can choose from four trim levels, and you really don't need the fanciest one. The test car checked in at less than $22,000 — and coupled with those gas mileage numbers, that's a lot of thrifty to go with the nifty.

The Pete 'n' Pam column appears monthly. Contact Pete at [email protected] and Pam at [email protected] or 445-3994

According to Pete 'n' Pam ...

■ Price: $19,700 to $26,000

■ EPA mileage of tested Prius c: 53 city, 46 highway

■ Target audience: The Sierra Club Youth Corps, shoppers intimidated by prices of larger Prius models, drivers dipping their toes into hybrids, established Prius customers looking for a second car.

■ Highs: Pete — Masterful engineering, base model (really all you need) is less than $20,000, fairly comfy for a tall guy to drive, cool media apps are available. Pam — Great gas mileage, and it holds my bicycle!

■ Lows: Pete — Cheap cabin plastics, bumpy ride. Pam — Feels sort of like an econo-car, from plasticky interior to sluggish acceleration.

■ Bottom line: Pete — Not much fun until you look at the mpg meter. Pam — You'll giggle as you drive right past the gas station.

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