The Prius C comes out of the gate seriously handicapped. It's already garnered more than its share of negative press, but we approached it with an open mind, ignoring the haters and even wanting to like this new Prius.
The addition of the hatchback makes the Prius C look less like a hybrid and more like a Yaris. A lot like a Yaris, in fact. That's not a bad thing, mind you, the Yaris is a fine-looking subcompact, but we wish that Toyota would have given the C a bit more of its own personality. But if stealthifying its hybrid-ness was the goal, Toyota has certainly accomplished that. And the C has sharper lines and a more aggressive-looking grille than the Yaris, as well as taller, more masculine-looking taillights.
Encouraged by the more car-like appearance of the exterior, our hopes were quickly dashed when we sat inside the Prius C. We've never liked the interior design of the Prius; the dashboard always seemed ill-conceived and that floaty shifter sticking out of the curved dash/center stack seemed like a joystick from some weird gaming system that never got beyond the design phase. The good news is the floaty shifter is gone. The bad news is it's been replaced with something just as bad. The C's shifter is, for lack of a better word, goofy. It's stalk is thin and feels flimsy and the neon blue makes it look like a child's toy. And there's a similar lack of seriousness to the interior overall. The plastic has a series of randomly distributed lines that give the interior an '80s album cover vibe. The seats are firm and comfortable, but overall the interior is at once too cluttered and too empty, with crowded spaces surrounded by large empty expanses. It's an impressive feat of bad design, but it's doubtful that's what Toyota was going for.
On the Road
The Prius has never been anyone's idea of a sporty car, but with the C having shed so much weight (it's about 500 lbs lighter than the regular Prius) one would expect a little more pep, but it simply isn't there. Acceleration is sluggish at best, and while that might not be a huge deal for city driving, it certainly wouldn't be fun on the freeways. The C has a smaller engine than the regular Prius, a 1.5-liter as opposed to a 1. 8-liter, and you really miss those 0.3 liters when you step on the gas. We understand that green car buyers have different expectations when it comes to performance, but we suspect that even they would appreciate a car that feels like it's capable of going slightly above the posted speed limit. Even city driving sometimes requires rapid acceleration, and we'd expect a car as light as the Prius C to have a bit more nimbleness.
Features & Prices
One thing we do like about the Prius C is the wealth of features that come standard. USB ports, 3.5-inch display, keyless entry, adjustable drivers seat, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel are nice things to have thrown in, but they aren't enough to justify the $19,900 sticker price of our tester, which, once the $760 destination fee is tacked on, bumps up to $20,660. That's a lot to pay for a car that doesn't like to move.
Safety & Fuel Economy
Now, fuel economy is where the Prius C really shines, right? Yes, relative to other cars, the Prius C kicks ass. But it doesn't fare much better than the standard Prius, despite having shed all those pounds. It gets a few more city mpg, but it actually loses a few on the highway, so the combined mpg of the C is 50 versus the standard Prius' 51.
The C stands for 'city' and the Prius C wants to be the perfect city car: small, utilitarian, and fuel-efficient. It is indeed all three of those things, but it's far from the perfect city car. And the reason is, no one really wants to drive a city car. They want a car that is practical for city driving, but also has some life once you take it off the clogged streets of the metropolis and out onto the open road.