Launched in March 2012, and carried forward with only minor updates for 2013, Toyota’s Prius c could be seen as a study in contrasts.
It’s a Prius, but unlike the mid-sized “Liftback” Prius, the subcompact baby in the Prius “family” blends in as an everyday hatchback compared to the “iconic” third-generation original.
On the other hand, the Prius c emulates the Prius Liftback in making high mpg and low emissions a priority, and both share 50 mpg combined ratings – but the c does it with 53 mpg city and 46 highway whereas the Liftback promises 51 city and 48 mpg highway.
Positioned as the “gateway” into Toyota’s four-model Prius line, the c is plain in several respects, but in others it’s fairly well equipped, plus it can be spec’d with a healthy degree of electronic connectivity besides.
And while it’s the most basic Prius, one could also argue it is the most fun to drive.
Toyota says the “c” stands for “city,” and it is ideal for urbanites. However, there’s nothing stopping anyone from pressing it into duty as a suburban car, or rural car, or even a highway car – just like eco-mobiles have been made to in the past, whether ideally suited or not.
Demographically, it aims for the hearts and minds of “Millennials” or “Generation Y” shoppers – the youngest drivers ranging to age 31 or so. Here again, the Prius c could just as well work for a 40-something, or 50-something, or 60-something, or – you get the point.
Marketers will say what they will. But the market has voiced its approval more meaningfully, snapping up 68,866 examples since last year, and this year our monthly sales Dashboard shows it’s the third best-selling hybrid behind the Liftback and Camry Hybrid.
These sales are actually for the four trim levels the c comes in – named appropriately enough, the Prius c One, Prius c Two, Prius c Three, andf Prius c Four – with all sharing the same powertrain.
Downsized Prius Formula
Offered only as a hybrid, the Prius c is a variation on Toyota’s trademarked “Hybrid Synergy Drive” theme albeit in a 1.5-liter flavor – the same displacement the original Prius had when launched in the U.S. in 2000.
A dozen years newer, the Prius c weighs 265 pounds less than the first-gen Prius, measures 12-inches shorter, and beats the first Prius’ EPA rating of 42 city, 41 highway by 21 percent in the city, 9 percent on the highway, and 18 percent combined.
Mpg numbers are slightly easier to achieve in the c even over the current Liftback in part because it’s smaller and lighter. Compared to the Liftback it is: 157.3-inches long versus 176.4-inches long; 56.9-inches tall compared to 58.7 inches tall; 66.7-inches wide compared to 68.7 inches wide.
The Prius c’s wheelbase is six inches shorter at 100.4 inches compared to the 106.3-inch Liftback wheelbase, and the c’s 2,500 pound weight is 542-pounds less.
Equally important if not more is mpg is enabled by the c’s 60-horsepower electric motor – that actually contributes 25.9 horsepower to the HSD system – and has the goal of using electrical energy as often as possible to prevent burning fuel.
In turn, the 73-horsepower, 82-pounds-feet torque from the Atkinson cycle engine needs the help, and Toyota rates the whole package at a modest 99 horsepower which is routed through a (fuel-saving) continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The c stores the electrical juice in a downsized 0.87 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal hydride that’s small enough so no trunk or seating space is sacrificed, and it hides under the rear seat proximal to the fuel tank.
Ninety-nine horsepower is enough to motivate the lighter car with its wind-cheating 0.28 drag coefficient, if not with blazing quickness.
Forward motion is served up by way of three selectable drive modes – Normal, Eco, and fuel-free EV which – assuming sufficient battery charge and mild acceleration – lets the c travel about one mile at up to 25 mph.
The littlest Prius offers a respectable 104 cubic feet of interior volume comprised of 87.4 cubic-feet passenger volume and 17.1 cubic feet of cargo space.
Style-wise, aspects of the Prius c should be recognizable to those familiar with the regular Prius but there are some detours from the formula and cues come also from the Yaris non-hybrid.
The carried-over Prius Multi-Information Display provides details including data unique to the hybrid’s powertrain. To keep costs down, Toyota uses some harder plastics and painted metal surfaces along with a slightly less funky design – the Prius’ blue computer-mouse-inspired “joystick” shifter is replaced with a conventional Yaris-style shifter marked PRND and B which heightens regenerative braking to recharge the battery on deceleration.
One consumer magazine was so turned off by Toyota’s bean-counter-inspired interior that it recommended people avoid the c altogether, and suggested a clean, used regular Prius instead.
We would not go that far, as this is an economy car focused on mpg, and otherwise packs some nice accoutrements in.
All trim levels include standard AM/FM CD with MP3/WMA, auxiliary audio jack, USB port with coaxial jack, hands-free phone and phone book access plus music streaming via Bluetooth. Prices are $130 more than last year and include an $810 delivery fee.
The Prius c One ($19,890) comes with power windows and locks, automatic climate control, intermittent front and rear wipers and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio, climate, multi-information display and Bluetooth hands-free phone controls, remote keyless entry and hill start assist, which prevents rollback on hills when you let off the brake pedal.
Prius c Two ($20,840) adds cruise control, an upgraded audio system, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, center console with armrest and a cargo area tonneau cover.
Prius c Three ($22,575) further comes with a Display Audio system with Navigation and Toyota’s Entune that adds a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, HD Radio with iTunes Tagging, vehicle information with customizable settings, and advanced voice recognition. Entune includes Pandora, Bing plus real-time info such as traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports, and stocks. Available apps are OpenTable, iHeartRadio and MovieTickets.com.
Prius c Four ($24,170) gets 15-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, color-keyed heated power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators and integrated fog lamps.
How It Functions
Propulsion power is OK, but the Prius c is pokier than the Liftback – which is not exactly a lightening bolt either.
The c is is not dangerously slow, but it’s not going to be thrilling for enthusiasts and it will try the patience of people who like to zip along as quickly as they can get away with.
In exchange, the c’s promised EPA mileage is easier to hit than with the regular Prius – we routinely saw a couple mpg over 50 on around-town trips, especially when using in the power-limiting Eco mode.
Some have reported Eco mode is too weak to bother with, but this depends on your sensibility. It did not bug us overly much.
Otherwise, even in Normal mode, the smaller engine will groan when climbing hills and attempting to accelerate at maximum haste.
In EV mode we managed one mile at mid 20 mph range and here was the c’s chance to pretend it was a slow-moving all-electric Nissan Leaf with one-seventy fifth the range – and zero percent of the range anxiety.
Ability to switch into the electric mode otherwise makes the Prius c a quiet car when not straining to accelerate and climb. In average go-with-the-flow driving, it is enjoyably quiet – so quiet that Toyota equips it with an EV-like pedestrian warning sound at parking lot speeds.
On the flip side, the Prius c can be more fun than the Prius Liftback because it’s a bit more engaging and nimbler – largely because it steers quickly and has 500 pounds less heft than the Liftback to portage on its MacPherson strut front suspension and rear torsion beam.
Further, its turning circle is small – this is a “city” car after all – and the result is an easy to whip around little transportation pod.
A sports car it is not, however, and there is not even a Sport mode, as on upper-level Toyota hybrids.
The c is a measured compromise, and you’d be wise to weigh your lifestyle requirements, and arrange a test drive yourself to see whether you think you could live with it.
We get to drive them all, and while there are many faster and better handling cars, this top-rated fuel sipper is a decent and simple alternative.
A final word to those wanting a better handling version, stock tire sizes on steel or alloy wheels is 175/65-15. An option for 195/50-16 wheels on one-inch larger diameter wheels is available, but you may mildly reduce mileage and get a harsher ride with the tires’ shorter sidewalls.
Is it A Good Value?
In qualified terms yes, but this depends entirely on your priorities. If these include maximum fuel economy, most of your driving is at sub-highway speeds, and you do not demand the utmost in luxury, the Prius c should ideally fit the bill.
Assuming it returns high 40 mpg to 50-plus, payback is possible after a few years of average annual driving compared to non-electrified cars costing a couple thousand or more dollars less.
On the other hand competition for the Prius c could come from other non-hybrid economy hatchbacks which may be as fun to drive and cheaper to buy, if not operate.
Compared to other hybrids – such as the Prius Liftback – assuming similar trim level, it costs around $5,000 less.
In all, we like the Prius c for what it is, and don’t mind too much about what it is not.