The Prius C? I could own one. And to think that I once disparaged the average Prius owner as a dork, or worse! Not entirely without reason, mind you. The original Prius was undeniably dorky in appearance, a kind of bizarre science project lacking in automotive virility or style. It was the kind of car you’d drive only if you didn’t like cars, and dorks don’t like cars. I’d have never owned a Prius back then. But now I would. Well, I might. What changed? The Prius itself, for one thing. The family has grown to four members: the original liftback Prius; the Prius V, a pleasant wagon version; the plug-in Prius; and now, the brand-new miniaturized version, the C. I’ve changed, too, having become something of an armchair expert on these cars after test-driving all iterations, close relatives in disguise. Like many others who initially disparaged the Prius, I’ve come, albeit grudgingly, to admire its efficiency, packaging, reliability, and, of course, fuel economy—real-world fuel economy, that is, not the vaporous fantasies of PR departments. Plus, the newer models just look better; there’s more design esthetic there.
But the main thing lacking was on-the-road fun. And now, with the just-released Prius C, that issue has, mostly, been addressed. The C stands for “City,” implying the ideal urban runabout, but it works in the country as well. It’s a truncated version of the regular Prius, with a wheelbase nearly 6 inches shorter and a smaller hybrid powerplant setup that produces 99 horsepower, as against 134 for the standard iteration. Sounds unpromising, you say? Take a car already not known for its speediness and divest it of what it needs most, i.e. ponies? Fair enough. I’d be the last one to argue against more horsepower. But Toyota’s pulled off a neat hat trick here. Somehow, they’ve shrunk the engine and thereby made the C cheaper and more economical than the regular Prius, but also distinctly more fun to drive.
Let’s start with the “cheaper” part: The Prius C comes in four trim levels, labeled, in minimalist style, One through Four, with price tags ranging from $19,710 for the entry-level base model Prius C One—that’s a tad over $4,000 less than the standard liftback model–to $25,140 for a loaded Four, such as the one I drove for a week, and even that price is close to the low end of the standard Prius spectrum. And since all “C” variants are well-equipped, you might not need to upgrade to a higher trim, considering how much comfort and gizmology the base One version comes with. The list includes automatic climate control, 4-way adjustable fabric-trimmed front seats, a 60/40 fold-down rear seat, tilt-and-telescope steering wheel with redundant controls, a remote keyless-entry system, a front 12V auxiliary power outlet, and a 3.5-in color Multi-Information Display that contains a veritable mini-encyclopedia of info on your car, stuff like outside temperature, clock, fuel economy history, cruising range, trip distance, EV miles driven, Hybrid System Indicator, ECO savings record, energy monitor, etc. (The latter is distracting, so I turned it off, unless there was something I actually needed to know.) The upper trim levels add things like Toyota’s full-bore Entune multimedia system, integrated foglights, power moonroof, and 16-in. alloy wheels. My Four also had extremely comfortable seats, made of a kind of odorless faux-leather Toyota calls Softex.
As for fuel economy, Toyota claims the C gets better mileage than any other car without a plug: 53 mpg in the city (3 more than the normal Prius), 46 on the road, with an average of 50. Over the week, I hit the claimed average almost squarely on the nose, with an indicated 49.3 mpg, and that was achieved not by hypermiling, a practice I disdain, but by pretty much doing the opposite: ignoring the Eco, or economy, drive mode (EV, for electric-only, and Normal are the others), and flooring the accelerator whenever and wherever I felt like it. Now that’s fuel economy. Even given the higher price of a Prius of any stripe over an economical non-hybrid car–say, to stay within the family, a Corolla, or a Yaris–and the time it would take to make up the differential, you’re on the angels’ side of the equation here, whatever future heights gas prices climb to. Tell me that’s not a persuasive argument.
The C shares the platform of its pretty-good cousin the Yaris, and even if it does take you over 10 seconds to get to 60 from a standstill, once you get going it feels a lot zippier than most small cars of my acquaintance, including the Yaris. One reason for this is that the C weighs in at a relatively light 2,496 lbs, 19% lighter (542 lbs. less) than the standard Prius, and it boasts a smaller and lighter battery (stowed below the second seat to optimize rear passenger room) than its bigger sibling, enabling it to scoot ahead where the full-size model might be a tad sluggish. Sportiness also resides in the specially tuned suspension and the electric power rack-and-pinion steering which, quite unexpectedly, turned out to be tight and pretty responsive. I took the car out onto narrow, up-and-down Hill Country roads, wet and dry, and it flung itself into the turns with almost unseemly eagerness. “This is a Prius?” I self-interrogated, semi-awestruck. The ride was surprisingly well-cushioned, too, and the lower ride height somehow imparts a greater feeling of coming to grips with the road, as in a sports car. Ride noise can be pronounced, however, especially on rough roads, thanks mostly to the low-rolling-resistance tires. But on smooth surfaces the little car rides like a mini-Lexus.
In front of you as you speed contentedly along is a dashboard with the high-mounted center gauges familiar to anyone who’s driven a Prius, but Toyota had the inspiration to render the interior of the “C” somewhat less weird than that of its big brother, so the tiny gear-change joystick and “P for Park” button are gone, replaced by a normal floor-mounted gear shifter and, wonder of wonders, a center pull-up parking brake; I didn’t think I’d ever see one of those again. Leg- and headroom are ample, and as mentioned the front seats are very comfortable. The ones in the rear require a little more contortion on the part of a pear-shaped human, such as I, but slimmer candidates should have less difficulty, although of course I’d hesitate to recommend the aft quarters for cross-country trips. Cargo space with the rear seats folded is impressive for such a mite of a car, enough for five 2-cu.ft. bags of garden mulch with room to spare. No problem there with space for the luggage needed on a weekend getaway.
Outside, the C looks something like a distant, sleeker relation of the Honda Fit, with more aggressively sculpted lines and aerodynamic styling that flows from the narrow top of the beltline into a wider esthetic zone below and contributing to an aggressive, almost bulldog-like stance. I liked the snazzy eight-spoke 16-in. alloys my bright-red (Absolutely Red, in Toyota parlance) tester came with, and its headlamp-foglight cluster gave its front fascia a unique look, distinct from other Prii, closer to its sporty cousin the Scion tC.
The Prius C comes with all the usual Prius/Toyota safety features Prius and Toyota are known for, including nine standard airbags, vehicle stability and traction control, tire-pressure monitor system, ABS with brake assist, hill start assist Control, “Smart Stop” technology, etc. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety hasn’t tested the Prius C yet, but given that both the standard Prius and the Prius V have been named Top Safety Picks, chances are the little C will do quite well.
Chances are the little C will do quite well in the marketplace, too. It has the right combination of style, economy, lowish price, and panache. Indeed, Toyota is already beating its corporate chest over the impressive sales figures racked up since the car was released on March 12th. And my experience bears out the good vibes. I could live with one of these cars. Sure, you’ll find yourself entertaining fantasies of an extra 35 or 40 horses under the hood, but repeat to yourself “Fifty miles per gallon…fifty miles per gallon…” and they’ll go away. Because, after all, it’s all about the fuel economy.