Okay, I'll admit it -- I was pretty skeptical when I heard Toyota was planning to parlay the Prius into an entire family of cars. Then the Prius v came out, offering SUV-like space with Prius-like fuel economy, and I was half convinced. Now that I've driven the new Prius c -- the baby Prius, if you will -- consider me won over.
Smaller isn't easier
Making a small Prius isn't quite as straightforwards as it sounds. Perhaps you've noticed that the latest crop of subcompact cars aren't much more fuel efficient than the compact cars sitting just above them in their respective product lineups. It all comes down to aerodynamics: It's easier to make a longer car slip through the wind than a shorter one. Toyota ran into that problem with the Prius c, which is based on the Yaris. The Prius c is nearly a foot and a half shorter than the Prius, so the only way to provide decent back-seat headroom was to give it a big, boxy hatchback rear end, which kills the aerodynamics. The Prius c's coefficient of drag is 0.28. compared to 0.25 for the regular Prius, which explains why its EPA highway fuel economy estimate is lower -- 46 MPG vs. 48 MPG for the bigger Prius.
But the in-town figure is higher -- 53 MPG for the c versus 51 for the Prius liftback. Toyota went on a witch-hunt for weight, downsizing the battery and the hybrid controller and even using lighter-weight seat fabric. As a result, the Prius tips the scales at 2,496 lbs, exactly the same as a base-model Honda Fit. They then fitted a smaller engine -- 1.5 liters, which powertrain engineer Satoshi Ogiso told me is about as small as an Atkinson-cycle engine can get while still producing enough torque for adequate acceleration. Total combined output is 99 horsepower, and the Prius c is reasonably quick around town, although the little engine is really pushed to the max on steep hills. Still, it does turn out pretty stellar fuel economy. I drove a handful of examples at a press preview in San Diego, and repeatedly saw fuel economy in the low- to mid-50s, with one 60 MPH freeway run topping 60 MPG.
More efficient? Yes. More fun? Well...
Toyota says they designed the Prius c to be more fun to drive than the Prius, which, let's face it, isn't very difficult. So is it? Well... I'd say it's less not-fun than the Prius, if that makes any sense. It definitely feels lighter and more nimble, and if you opt for the 16" alloy wheels -- only offered on the top-of-the-line Prius c Four -- it actually steers somewhat like a real car. But the real fun is seeing just how many miles you can squeeze out of a gallon of gas, something the Prius c's multi-mode color display will happily coach you through, giving your real-time feedback on your acceleration, cruising, and braking techniques.
The Prius c comes wrapped in a neat-looking, nicely-sized package which is easy to see out of and easy to park. I'm not crazy about the dashboard; Toyota thinks it's youthful, while I think it's schizophrenic. But the material quality is up to Toyota's usual standards, the front seats are comfortable, the controls are easy to use, and the stereo sounds pretty good. The back seat is as good as any other subcompact, and the trunk is a decent 17.1 cubic feet.
What's most impressive -- besides the gas mileage -- is the price. The base model, called the Prius c One, starts at $19,710, including power windows and locks, air conditioning, and Bluetooth, while the top-of-the-line Prius c Four gets alloy wheels, navigation, push-button ignition, and lightweight pseudo-leather upholstery, all for $23,990. Those prices put the Prius about $4,000 higher than comparably-equipped subcompacts, but I expect most Prius drivers will see 50 to 53 MPG in town, compared to 30 to 35 MPG for a conventionally-powered car. At $3.50 per gallon, that saves about three cents per mile -- so figure around 130,000 miles to recoup the cost difference. Still, think of the bragging rights!
The Prius c's chief rival is the Honda Insight, which is priced around $600 cheaper. The Honda has a more usable trunk at the expense of rear-seat headroom. But in terms of fuel economy, it's no contest , since the Insight only averages around 43 MPG. Say goodnight, Honda.
So it looks like I was wrong to doubt the whole Prius family concept. The new Prius c is an excellent addition, delivering outstanding hybrid fuel economy at a much lower price point than the regular Prius. And just like every other Toyota hybrid, it actually delivers the fuel economy it promises. I can't wait for the next addition to the Prius family... a convertible, perhaps? -- Aaron Gold
- Outstanding fuel economy
- Affordable pricing
- Easy to drive and park
- Awkward interior styling
- Engine is pushed to its limits on steep hills
- Smallest and least-expensive member of the Prius family
- Price range: $19,710 - $23,990 (not including options)
- Powertrain: 1.5 liter inline 4/73 hp plus electric hybrid drive, 99 hp net; power-split automatic transmission; front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 53 MPG city/46 MPG highway
- Best rivals: Honda Insight, Kia Rio, Volkswagen Golf TDI