Review: 2012 Toyota Prius C

We travel to the Sunshine State to drive Toyota's newest hybrid.

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March 7, 2012

Review: 2012 Toyota Prius C

Toyota calls the Prius C the most-fuel efficient hybrid that doesn't have a plug.

More Hybrid, Less Money
When a company has a hybrid that's been as successful as the Toyota Prius has been over the years, how does that company expand on its success? In Toyota's case, the answer is to expand the family.

The lineup additions include the Prius V (brings more cargo space to the table), a plug-in hybrid, and now, the Prius C.

No, the 'C' doesn't stand for 'cheap,' (Toyota says it stands for 'city') even if the car is intended to be an entry-level contender for buyers who are curious about the Prius (or hybrids in general) but scared off by the cost. The C feels upscale enough (we'll get to that) to avoid the dreaded econocar label, even if the performance doesn't quite take it out of that category (we'll get to that, too). Indeed, the C has more in common with a hypothetical hybrid Toyota Yaris than one might think.

So we've got a less-expensive Prius that offers funkier looks and a promise of higher mpgs on our hands, all with the intent of luring younger buyers into the fold. What do we make of this 'gateway vehicle for the Prius family'? Read on to find out.

2012 Toyota Prius c What You C And What You Get The Prius C comes in four trim levels, which are simply named One, Two, Three, and Four. The base One clocks in at $18,950, the Two at $19,900, the Three at $21,635, and the Four at $23,230 (the cheapest standard Prius starts at $23,015). What separates the various trims is the level of features, and the Four can also be had with 16-inch alloy wheels over the standard 15-inch wheels (Three buyers can get 15-inch alloys). Other standard features include remote keyless entry, Bluetooth, a USB port, an auxiliary jack, hill-start assist, and a tilt/telescope steering wheel. Available features, depending on trim, include a push-button start, Toyota's EnTune app suite, heated front seats, and a navigation system.

EnTune allows drivers to use Microsoft's Bing search engine to locate services, and it also allows drivers to stream Pandora Internet radio, among other things.

Toyota folks say they're making an effort to make hybrids a little bit more accessible to those who wouldn't normally shop the segment, and one noticeable concession to that effort is the shifter, which is a more traditional gear lever than what's found in the standard Prius.
2012 Toyota Prius c Performance The Prius C is powered by a sole engine, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 73 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque before combining with the electric motor for a total of 99 system horsepower. A full system torque figure isn't mentioned, but Toyota says the electric motor has 125 lb-ft of torque. The battery pack is nickel-metal hydride.

The appeal of the C is that it's lighter than the standard Prius liftback, but 99 horses can only do so much. Acceleration is of the 'are we there yet?' variety, which is fine for around-town driving, but it won't light the heart on fire. Nor will it light anything else on fire. To be fair, that may not be an issue with most C buyers, who will be looking for efficient urban transport.

Toyota has tried to position the C as a bit sportier than the standard Prius (it's definitely lighter, tipping the scales at a weight more in line with the Yaris), and while the steering feel mostly lives up to the bargain, there's no doubt that this is an urban runabout, not a truly sporty hybrid. We noticed little difference between the 15-inch and 16-inch wheels, even though cars with the 16-inchers are supposed to be a bit sportier. We should note that our South Florida drive route was tailored more to urban driving than back-road brawling, which likely fits the C's mission to a T.

We did get a short freeway stint, and found the C to be impressively smooth for a small car at highway speeds. Low-cost doesn't mean penalty box.

There's an Eco drive mode for better efficiency which dampens throttle response and an EV drive mode that keeps the car in electric-only mode for longer at low speeds, and both appeared to work as advertised during our brief drive.
2012 Toyota Prius c Interior The interior's materials feel class-appropriate, and we appreciated the available Pandora system. We didn't have much time to use EnTune on this event, but we've sampled the system before, and we like the idea, although we'll reserve full judgment on its execution for a later date.

EnTune uses a customer's smartphone to access the data cloud, and it can be used to search out nearby businesses, reserve tables at a restaurant, find sports scores, and score movie tickets. A subscription is free for three years, and a Facebook app may be coming soon.

Interior space and cargo space is adequate for most adults. An available 60/40 split-fold rear seat adds to the utility, and cargo capacity is 17.1 cubic feet.
2012 Toyota Prius c Styling The Prius C has even more angular styling than the liftback, especially in the rear, but the look is still unmistakably Prius. It's a member of the family, alright.
2012 Toyota Prius c Fuel Efficency Toyota calls the Prius C the most-fuel efficient hybrid that doesn't have a plug, and while we had no chance to measure fuel economy, the official numbers are 53 mpg highway, 46 mpg city, and 50 mpg combined. Toyota has utilized weight-saving tricks such as switching to electric-assisted power steering to achieve those numbers. The company even found a way to remove the accessory drive belt from the engine, thus increasing efficiency. The 2,500 lb curb weight and .28 coefficient of drag can't hurt, either.

In addition to the aforementioned hill-start assist system, the Prius C comes standard with traction control, an anti-skid system, and nine airbags.
2012 Toyota Prius c Our Take Toyota will tell you that the Prius C is for those who want a Prius but are uncertain about hybrids and/or feel that the Prius is a bit too expensive. And while sometimes automakers spin fiction about a car's intended market or whether the car meets the goal, in this case, what you 'C' is what you get. Toyota's assessment is pretty spot on. The Prius C gives a lot of the Prius experience, both good and bad, while costing less (perhaps the 'c' stands for cost-efficient?). We can't yet vouch for the fuel-economy numbers, and we'd be remiss if we didn't note that there are plenty of non-hybrid subcompacts and compacts that offer sportier performance without much of a fuel-economy penalty available at similar prices, but for hybrid shoppers on a budget, the Prius C adds one more choice to the list.

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