As the quintessential high-mpg hybrid, the Toyota Prius is certainly one of the most successful sales stories of the new millennium. Despite its being knocked for lifeless driving dynamics and a slightly elevated price tag, shoppers have flocked to the Prius for its remarkable fuel economy. With this sort of success in mind, it was only a matter of time until Prius spin-offs would debut.
The 2012 Toyota Prius C is the newest addition to the Prius lineup, with the "C" standing for city. It's smaller than the traditional Prius (now called the liftback) and the even larger Prius V. Besides being 19 inches shorter in length than the liftback, the Prius C also receives a downsized drivetrain. A 1.5-liter gasoline engine (the liftback has a 1.8-liter unit) and smaller motor-generators get the Prius C moving. Considering the C weighs about 540 pounds less than the liftback, performance doesn't take a significant hit from the less powerful unit.
What is more significant about the Prius C, however, is the bottom line. A base Prius C will cost you about $4,000 less than the liftback while delivering a very impressive 50 mpg EPA rating for combined driving. On top of this, the C is noticeably more fun to drive, with greater cornering abilities and improved driver feedback.
Of course, competition is still rather sparse in the hybrid segment, and the Prius C has few rivals. The Honda Insight is priced competitively, but we have found that there are far too many compromises to contend with. Conventionally powered hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent are more worthy adversaries. In the end, the 2012 Toyota Prius C represents an admirable choice among hatchbacks and hybrids alike.
As with the entire Prius lineup, the 2012 Toyota Prius C is powered by both a traditional gasoline engine and a pair of electric motor-generators. The smaller Prius C makes do with smaller drivetrain components, however. Providing power to the wheels and generators is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 73 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque. The two electric motor-generators bring the overall output total to 99 hp. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) routes power to the front wheels.
In Edmunds testing, this Prius C accelerated from zero to 60 mph in a rather reluctant 11.3 seconds. Coming to a stop from that speed yielded much better results, as the car does the job in 118 feet, which is about average for compact cars. While power delivery is far from impressive, the crucial numbers here involve miles per gallon and the Prius C is definitely a champ in this respect. The EPA estimates 53 city/46 highway mpg and 50 mpg in combined driving, which is the highest rating in the EPA book for anything other than a high-tech plug-in hybrid. In our testing, we averaged 48.9 mpg.
The 2012 Toyota Prius C won't astound anyone with sports-car handling, but there are a few surprises. Though the Prius liftback is typically thought to be lifeless and uninspiring when it comes to handling, the Prius C delivers a significantly better experience. The steering, though a bit numb, is fairly quick and accurate, while the suspension keeps the little hatchback well planted and confidently nimble. Better still, this added road holding does not come at the expense of ride comfort.
We would, however, caution against the 16-inch wheel option. These wheels and tires are also wider, and do not allow for as much fender clearance as the stock 15-inchers. As a result, Toyota has had to engineer the car with a turning radius that is wider by a whopping 6 feet, and the result will be more three-point turns instead of the simple, preferred and safer U-turn.
As an entry-level hybrid the 2012 Toyota Prius C follows a rather modest approach when it comes to its manners on the road, with an overall impression that is similar to any number of economy hatchbacks. Road imperfections are definitely felt throughout the cabin, but at no point does the car feel skittish or unsettled. Road and wind noise are noticeable, yet rarely intrusive.
With one exception, the average male adult should find that all seats provide an acceptable amount of head- and legroom. That exception would be the front passenger seat. The low-mounted glovebox intrudes into the footwell, placing it directly in front of the knees of the unlucky passenger. It's a little disconcerting when you imagine a frontal impact and a little inconvenient when you try to access the bin's contents.
Glovebox placement notwithstanding, the Prius C's cabin is perfectly acceptable for the average commute or long-range road trip. Outward visibility is excellent and aided by the instruments atop the dash that are right in the driver's sight lines. There are also plenty of medium-size bins and pockets to store drinks, phones and assorted personal items.
As our Prius C test vehicle was delivered in range-topping Four trim, there were also plenty of bells and whistles at our disposal. Toyota's Entune smartphone integration system not only allows for iPod control, but also adds navigation, Bing search functions, streaming Internet audio and traffic, sports and stock information. Operation through the 6-inch touchscreen is intuitive enough to not require a trip through the owner's manual, but the stereo's sound quality is merely adequate.
Prius C cargo capacity is comparable to the typical compact hatchback, with an accommodating 17.1 cubic feet of storage behind the 60/40-split folding rear seats. Shoppers with small children should be aware that a rear-facing child seat will force the front passenger uncomfortably close to the dash and intruding glovebox.
Design/Fit and Finish
From the outside, the 2012 Toyota Prius C has plenty of styling cues that keep it firmly planted in the Prius family. At the same time, there is enough hatchback personality to differentiate it from the spaceship/microvan shapes of its rivals. The interior continues this theme with carryover Prius elements, with the centrally located gauges and unique ovoid steering wheel. Unlike other Prii, the C comes with a traditional console shifter and parking brake instead of the odd joystick gear selector and push-button brake found in its relatives.
At the same time, the Prius C is also infused with a healthy dose of entry-level econobox furnishings. Elbow touch points are barely padded, while every other surface seems made of a flimsy plastic. Compared to other hatchbacks in this price range, the Prius C's cabin is a bit of a letdown. We were particularly disappointed by the SofTex-trimmed seats, which are touted as an eco-friendly alternative to leather. The material was as far from leather as we could have imagined, feeling more like a strange plastic fabric that reminded us of a doctor's examination table.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you're in the market for a compact city car, the 2012 Toyota Prius C is hard to beat. It's also hard to beat if you're looking for a hybrid on a budget, as it undercuts the regular Prius by a healthy margin. The Prius C is priced right in the same ballpark as Honda's Insight and CR-Z hybrids, but we would take the Toyota over them any day. Furthermore, with the hybrid engine, you wouldn't be tethered to a limited travel radius as you would in an electric car, which means the Prius C could be your sole vehicle.
As it is, we rank the Prius C highly, preferring it in some ways over its larger Prius cousins, mostly for its livelier driving dynamics, although a terrifically affordable price sure doesn't hurt.
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