Timing is often everything in the automotive world. As gasoline prices again spiraled upwards, Toyota’s launch of the Prius c in mid-March couldn’t have been better timed. With a price starting at $18,950 and an EPA city fuel economy estimate of 53 mpg, it should be no surprise that the smallest Prius tallied 1,201 units sold within three days
of its launch. Through the end of May, sales totaled 12,379, numbers that aren’t far removed from the Honda Insight’s 15,519 units for all of 2011.

The diminutive c is the fourth hybrid to be tagged a Prius and joins the conventional midsize Prius (now referred to as the Liftback), the more spacious v and the Plug-in model. While based largely on the Toyota Yaris platform—it’s about four inches longer than the Yaris—the c is remarkably similar to the original Prius. Both have a 100.4-inch wheelbase, the same 66.7-inch width and employ a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. However, the Prius c is some 12 inches shorter than the first Prius, and is 265 pounds lighter. But the big difference is fuel economy: The Prius c clocks in at 53 mpg city/46 highway and 50 combined compared to the first model’s 42/41/41 rating.

And just what does that “c” stand for? Cute, compact and cheap come to mind, but Toyota says it represents “city” and is designed to function as an urban-friendly vehicle aimed at millennial buyers. That prompts two questions: Does it not function in small towns or rural areas and, are Baby Boomers excluded as potential buyers?

A Scaled Down Hybrid System

The basics of the Prius c’s hybrid system mirror those of the larger models, but everything is scaled down. The 1.5-liter four cylinder Atkinson cycle engine (an updated version of the engine employed in the first Prius) is 0.3-liters smaller and its 73 horsepower is 25 less. Engine torque is also curtailed, 82 pounds feet versus 105. Power output of the smaller electric motor, integrated into the continuously variable transmission (CVT) like its larger siblings, is 60 horsepower, down 20 horses, and torque production is also less, 125 pound-feet compared to 153 in the standard Prius. Total system output—engine and motor combined—is 99 horsepower for the Prius c, 35 fewer than its bigger brothers.

Like the other components, the nickel-metal hydride battery is reduced in size with fewer electrons. The battery pack consists of 120 cells as opposed to the standard Prius’ 168 cells, and consequently offers a modest 0.87 kilowatt-hours rather than 1.2 kw-hours. Toyota positioned the battery pack and fuel tank beneath the rear seat. This placement not only provides additional cargo space, it furnishes a low center of gravity that enhances handling.

2012 Toyota Prius c

The Prius c’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system operates the same way as in other Prius models: it’s propelled by electric power alone for a short distance up to 25 mph; a combination of the engine and electric motor when more power is required; and engine only if the battery charge is low. The gas engine shuts off automatically when stopped and restarts when the brake pedal is released. Braking and coasting downhill recharges the battery.

Three distinct drive modes are offered, Normal, Eco and EV. Eco mode conserves fuel by governing the climate control and throttle response and EV mode allows the car to be driven for about one mile at up to 25 mph.

Looks (Sort Of) Like A Prius

Until now, the Prius design has been undeniable and, for many owners, the distinctive look sends a message which declares that steps must be taken to reduce our voracious thirst for oil—with all its negative consequences in terms of the environment and geopolitics.

Up front, the c does exhibit the familiar Prius nose bump with a Toyota logo badge below. However, the small upper grille opening is a slot rather than the elongated V shape with a chrome insert found on the larger models. And, although the headlamps on the c sweep upwards toward the front roof pillar, they look too large in proportion to the car’s size and aren’t as sleek as those on the other Prii.

2012 Toyota Prius c

In profile, the c is similar to the sweptback design characteristics of the v model. An angled hood seamlessly flows into a raked windshield, then to a curving roofline that meets up with a small rear spoiler. Adding a dash of boldness, large, sculpted rear wheel arches with a distinct character line swoops downward and tapers toward the front. The backside is dominated by large vertical taillamps that are exclusive to the c.

The absence of Prius “hybridness” styling is by design, according to Prius Chief Engineer, Satoshi Ogiso. The mission was a look that would attract new, younger buyers that want a hybrid that didn’t shout, “Hey, look at me. I’m driving a hybrid.” The mission was accomplished with the c looking more like a Prius stepchild rather than a blood relative.

A Look Inside

Occupants are greeted with materials that are mostly hard plastic with a few soft-touch surfaces. This is expected in subcompact cars, but the quality appearance and feel lags behind others in the class like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Accent. Trending towards hipness, the dash design, with an angled, asymmetric center console, is obviously aimed at young buyers. Overall, with its two-tone interior, the cabin presents a friendly, cheerful environment.

2012 Toyota Prius c

Like the grown-up Liftback and v Prii, the instrument panel is placed in the center of the dash below the windshield rather than the more orthodox—and easier to see—location behind the steering wheel. Readouts always include the digital speedometer, fuel gauge, gear selection, odometer, average fuel economy and time. With a steering wheel mounted button, the driver can toggle different information that is displayed on the bottom section of the screen, such as: a graphic of the power distribution between the battery, engine, electric motor and wheels; a real-time battery charge gauge; scoring that measures economical driving; and fuel cost per mile. Want to compare the cost of driving the Prius c with another vehicle, say the gas guzzling Toyota Sequoia SUV (13 city/17 highway)? You can do that, too.

Wow, all that info at your fingertips! But toggling through all that data and glancing over with squinted eyes to read the small-size text while driving … Well, you get the picture.

2012 Toyota Prius c

One component not carried over from the other models is the stubby, confusing-to-use joystick gearshift lever positioned in the center console. The Prius c has a conventional floor-mounted shifter with the familiar PRND sequence, plus an ersatz low gear marked “B,” which slows the car and produces a more aggressive regenerative braking.

The Prius c has adequate room up front with good head- and legroom, and the bucket seats provide an agreeable blend of comfort and support. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but a height adjustable driver’s seat is not offered on the base model, which could be a deal breaker for some shorter drivers. Entry and exit to the rear cabin can be somewhat difficult, but there’s sufficient legroom for above average height folks, and there’s room for two adults or three little ones. With the rear seatbacks up there is an admirable 17.1 cubic feet of cargo room. The rear seat does fold to expand cargo space, either in one piece on the base model or 60/40 split in the other trim levels, but Toyota doesn’t provide the increased space numbers.

Features And Tech

Prius c is offered in four trim level models: One, Two, Three and Four. Ensuring the c connects with the ever more connected young crowd, all versions come standard with an AM/FM CD audio system with MP3/WMA, an auxiliary audio jack, a USB port with iPod jack, hands-free phone and phone book access plus music streaming via Bluetooth connectivity.

The entry Prius c One ($18,950) shuns the notion that it is an economy car with a commendable list of standard features including 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. For an additional $1,000, the Prius c Two ($19,900) 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.

2012 Toyota Prius c

The Prius c Three ($21,635) builds on Two 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 ($23,230) is distinguished by its 15-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, color-keyed heated power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators and integrated fog lamps.

Prius c’s technology doesn’t end with entertainment and connectivity features. Nine airbags are standard including a driver’s knee bag (helps keep the driver’s body in the correct position so the seatbelt and steering wheel airbag can provide optimum protection) and front seat airbags (prevents occupants from sliding under their seatbelts in certain types of impacts). Active safety tech includes anti-lock brakes for more controlled emergency stops, traction control for added grips in takeoffs, and antiskid stability control to minimize chances of sideways skids.

2012 Toyota Prius c

Behind The Steering Wheel

The Prius c is a highly citified small car and feels, in typical Toyota fashion, solidly built. Visibility, fore and aft, is excellent all around, it is easy to park and can pull a U-turn on narrow streets. Leisurely acceleration from a stop is appropriate for metro and urban traffic speeds. On smooth road surfaces it offers up a delightful ride and, compared to the larger Prii, one could almost say it is fun to drive. Almost.

Part of our time spent with the c was in Seattle where we logged 63 miles that included crisscrossing Queen Anne Hill with its steep hills and narrow streets. It’s this driving environment where the little Prius exposes some of its foibles. Traveling uphill, the engine huffs, puffs and groans as it tries to make a grade. While this is going on, the CVT sounds like it’s perpetually slipping—it’s not—as it desperately tries to match throttle input with the correct gearing. In other words, not a pleasurable experience.

However, the c redeemed itself with fuel efficiency. Our city ride returned 51.9 mpg, a little less than the EPA estimate for city fuel economy, but the hilly Queen Anne streets took their toll even though we drove in Eco mode all day.

2012 Toyota Prius c

The balance of our driving included 167 miles of Interstate and two lane highways plus, 65 miles of the typical in-town daily errands. While happy in the city, the Prius c is less at home on the open road with a fair amount of steering corrections to maintain the intended path. Then there is that huffing, puffing and groaning when traveling uphill. Most annoying, however, is merging into fast moving Interstate traffic. It is here where it becomes very apparent that the diminutive hybrid needs a couple more hamsters on the treadmill as merging can be a hazardous occupation. Once melded into traffic, things smooth out but far left lane driving is not this car’s forte.

A week with the Prius c and the odometer had added 295.3 miles. We normally exceed EPA fuel economy numbers with hybrids but this time fell short, we average 46.9 mpg. Chalk that up to hills, hills and more hills where the 99 horsepowered engine struggled.

Bottom Line

There are certainly other subcompact hatchbacks that are more fun to drive that cost less—the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic and Hyundai Accent come to mind. However, if you’re a city-centric greenie, the Prius c is the car for you. Don’t stray too far from its natural urban habitat and it will most likely exceed your expectations. And, if you have a gotta-be-connected personality, well, this little fuel-sipping hatchback has you covered.

Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.