May 22, 2012
There are lots of reasons people buy hybrids, but saving money has never been one of the better justifications. It doesn't matter how devoted you are to hypermiling; it would take years to make up the difference between the price of a hybrid and a less expensive conventional car.
The new 2012 Toyota Prius C tackles this problem head-on. The junior-size Prius lays down big EPA numbers (53 city/46 highway/50 combined mpg) but its price tag is comparatively small. The base MSRP is just $19,710, $5,000 less than the cheapest, standard-size 2012 Prius.
On paper, this five-door hatchback is a hybrid that might actually save you money. What better way to find out than buying one of our own and hitting the road with it for 20,000 miles?
What We Got
Toyota sells the 2012 Prius C in four trim levels designated One, Two, Three and Four. All of them have the same gas-electric hybrid drivetrain, comprised of a 73-horsepower, 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine; a couple electric motors (one of which drives the front wheels); and a 144-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack. A planetary gearset-regulated continuously variable transmission (CVT) blends the two power sources; total system power is 99 hp.
The One model comes with amenities like automatic climate control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary inputs — and that's about where the list ends. Most buyers will end up with at least the Prius C Two, which adds height adjustment for the driver seat, a center console with an armrest, cruise control, variable intermittent wipers, an extra pair of speakers (for a total of six) and a 60/40 split for the folding rear seat.
Of course, that wasn't enough kit for us. We set our sights on a 2012 Toyota Prius C Three ($22,395), which comes with keyless ignition, satellite radio and a navigation system with the app-based Entune interface for smartphones. We also wanted it in orange, or Habanero on the options list. We wanted to avoid the top-of-the-line Four model (yes, even though it's available with 16-inch wheels and quicker-ratio steering) because it comes with Toyota's SofTex eco-friendly simulated leather upholstery. It might pass muster with antivivisectionists, but it has the consistency of a damp walrus.
Apparently, we're the only ones in California who want an orange hybrid, because none of our local Toyota dealers had a Prius C in Habanero. Our second choice was Summer Rain Metallic, and our friends at Carson Toyota had a Three model in exactly that color.
An optional moonroof ($850) and floor and cargo mats ($225) pushed the sticker price to $23,470. Our crack team of negotiators whittled that down to $22,701 — or $500 over invoice.
Why We Got It
Buying a Prius has never made financial sense to us, but this Prius Could change our minds. Sure, the 2012 Toyota Prius C is 18 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower and significantly less roomy than a regular Prius, but for solo commuting, it's no less practical and the mpg is just as good. Actually, we think the Prius C might be capable of even bigger mileage numbers given its much lower curb weight, and we're already planning more rigorous mpg testing.
"But the 2012 Toyota Prius C is more than just outstanding fuel economy in uncertain times," we wrote in our full road test. "It's a small Prius we actually like for being a good car, not just a great hybrid.
"It drives well — handles, even — does not look weird and is nicely equipped."
We have no illusions that we'll win many stoplight races in our Prius C over the next 12 months, but given how strong the rest of the package is, that might not matter much. Will this be the car that changes our mind about hybrids, a useful and enjoyable compact hatchback that just happens to get 50 mpg? Follow our reports on the Long-Term Road Test blog over the next 12 months.
Current Odometer: 618
Best Fuel Economy: 50.1 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 46.7 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 48.0 mpg
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.