Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
Less than two weeks ago we topped off the 9.5-gallon gas tank in our 2012 Toyota Prius C before starting our One Lap of Orange County fuel economy loop. We paid $3.97 for each gallon. Seven hours and 210 miles later we were back at the same pump, this time paying $4.03 per gallon to replace what the C had consumed. Cha-ching.
Thing is, we only bought 3.6 gallons after covering that distance. Do the math and that works out to 58.2 mpg. Sure, 100 percent of our course is a city loop and we drive it in a relaxed fashion, but we're never the slowest car on the road and we don't hypermile.
For its part, Toyota rates the 2012 Prius C hybrid at 53 mpg in the city and 46 on the highway. The C's official combined rating is 50 mpg. So, no matter how you look at it, the Prius C is a very efficient hybrid. Better yet, it's a pretty good car, too.
What Have We Gained?
Fans of the standard Prius may notice that 50 mpg is no better than the combined rating of the regular Prius we've seen for years. Shouldn't a smaller Prius do even better at the pump? What's the big deal?
Well, the C is rated 3 mpg higher in the city, and that C does stand for "city," but the big deal is the leftover cash in your wallet. With a base price of $19,710, the entry-level base model Prius C One starts at $4,065 less than the standard liftback model.
Our fully loaded 2012 Toyota Prius C Four test car has $1,150 worth of optional sunroof and 16-inch tires, so it costs $25,140, which is about as expensive as the Prius C gets. But even that number is closer to the low end of regular Prius pricing than the middle. What's more, Toyota says the midrange Prius C Two and Three will represent 80 percent of sales, so the vast majority of Cs will cost less than $22,500.
What Have We Lost?
Size, mostly. The 2012 Toyota Prius C Hatchback is 18.1 inches less lengthy, 2.1 inches narrower and 1.8 inches shorter than a Prius. It rides on a wheelbase that's 6 inches stubbier and it weighs 542 pounds less.
Basically, it's Yaris-size, only sleeker and more handsome. Both are the same width, but the Prius C rides on a 100.4-inch wheelbase, some 1.6 inches longer than the just-released 2012 Yaris four-door hatchback. Among other things, this allows for a lower seating position and a more graceful roof line that's a full 2.5 inches lower.
It should come as no surprise that the Prius C rides on a Yaris platform. The same MacPherson struts support the front end and the same twist-beam axle underpins the rear. It's all been retuned around the C's lower center of gravity and low-rolling-resistance tires, of course.
And it works. The 2012 Toyota Prius C feels calmer and more settled than any regular Prius, even though the C is tuned to provide a somewhat sportier ride. That lower seating position imparts a more secure feeling and a reduced sense of body roll, and the 16-inch tires on our test car provide grip to the tune of 0.80g on our skid pad.
The C's requisite electronic power steering is still a bit numb, but response is sure and direct. Our C demonstrates quick reflexes and poise through the slalom, too, posting a speed of 64.3 mph, over 5 mph faster than a Prius. It's actually fun and a little bit tossable.
On the Other Hand
Our optional P195/50R16 tires come with a quicker 13.2-to-1 steering ratio. But the rubber apparently fills the fenders too much, and Toyota engineers had to restrict the amount of steering lock to the point where the turning circle is 37.4 feet.
But that's not the case on the 90 percent of Prius Cs that will wear P175/65R15 rubber. These come paired with a more permissive steering rack (albeit a tad slower, at 14.4-to-1) that can hang a U-turn in 31.4 feet.
But there's no avoiding the fact that the 2012 Toyota Prius C is slow. The run to 60 mph drags on for 11.3 seconds (10.9 with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip), which lags 1.2 seconds behind the last Prius we tested. It's not the end of the world if your prime directive is fuel economy, but it is the elephant in the room.
This all comes back to the second reason why the Prius C costs thousands less: the entire powertrain and hybrid system have been scaled down along with the car itself.
The 70-Something Percent Solution
There's still a four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gas engine with variable intake valve timing under the hood, but it's been downsized from 1.8 to 1.5 liters, and from 98 to 73 horsepower.
Toyota's well-sorted Hybrid Synergy Drive system is still here, with a planetary gearset CVT (continuously variable transmission) containing two electric motors, but the primary drive motor has been shrunk from 80 to 60 hp. The nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack is made from 120 1.2-volt cells instead of 168, it weighs 67 pounds instead of 91 and it can feed but 26 hp to the electric motors instead of 36 electric ponies.
Total blended gas-electric horsepower in the 2012 Toyota Prius C works out to 99, some 35 less than a standard Prius.
Fuel economy in urban settings bests that of a regular Prius because the three-quarter-size hybrid system has plenty of capacity at city speeds for our test car's downsized 2,587-pound curb weight. On wide-open freeways the little gas engine dominates the picture and fuel consumption can either dip into the high 30s if you're a leadfoot or range into the high 40s if you're not.
Our overall test average over 938 miles of combined driving came out to 48.9 mpg.
"C" Is Also for Commuter
This smaller Prius C is mostly smaller behind the front seats. As far as the driver seat goes, we actually prefer the C to a regular Prius — by a significant margin.
Its lower driving position feels less chairlike, more relaxed, yet an identical 38.6 inches of front headroom is available. Front legroom appears worse on paper, but 41.7 inches is still plenty of space to stretch out. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but we'd be more comfy if it telescoped another half-inch or so.
The high center-mounted gauges that are a Prius hallmark still persist, but the interior seems far less weird because the silly joystick shift lever and the separate push-button for Park is history. Instead there's a normal console shifter and a center-pull parking brake lever — like a real car.
Unlike the Yaris, the C's climate control system is automatic, with friendly and obvious controls. Bluetooth phone, streaming audio and iPod integration are standard on Cs of all levels, and the Prius C Three and above include XM, HD radio, a navigation system and the Entune cloud-based data system.
Rear-seat space is a bit tight if you're more than 6 feet tall, but the Prius C's backseat is actually far more inviting than that of the Honda Insight hybrid. And that stubby tail hides 17.1 cubic feet of seats-up cargo space, also a bit more than you get in the larger-looking Insight.
A Wider Net
None of the Prius C's shrinkage should matter to the legions of single-occupant Prius commuters we see every day. Few would argue with a smaller car that does the same go-to-work job and delivers the same (or better) otherworldly fuel economy for less money. And the Prius C is certainly a strong new candidate for those who shied away from the regular Prius because it was too pricey.
As for us, the 2012 Toyota Prius C Hatchback is our new favorite Prius. It drives well — handles, even — does not look weird and is nicely equipped. OK, it's not fast in a straight line, but we'll gladly take that if we can get 50 mpg for $4 grand less than a regular Prius.
Remember the gas prices that shot up 6 cents to $4.03 in one day at the beginning of our story? Those were the good, old days. Four days later they were asking $4.25 per gallon. Today they're changing the signs to read $4.33 per.
But the 2012 Toyota Prius C is more than just outstanding fuel economy in uncertain times. It's a small Prius we actually like for being a good car, not just a great hybrid.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.