Toyota Prius c — An affordable hybrid alternative

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For the budget-conscience car buyer who would rather purchase new than used and who desires the exceptional fuel economy of a hybrid vehicle, the all-new Toyota Prius c hatchback may be just the ticket. The sub-compact c starts at under $19,000 and delivers a combined city/highway EPA rating of 50 miles to the gallon.

The c is the newest addition to the growing family of Prius vehicles, which includes the traditional Prius (now called the liftback), the larger station wagon-like Prius V, and the Prius Plug-in Hatchback, now sold in certain sections of the country with nationwide availability in 2013.

The new Prius c costs on average about $4,000 less than the traditional Prius and about $6,500 less than the Prius V making it the perfect hybrid alternative for those who won't or can't obligate themselves to a big car payment. Granted, it has less space than the other Prius siblings, but it will transport four people in comfort with 17.1 cubic feet of luggage capacity for about $21,000 relatively well equipped. And it boosts the best non-plug-in gas mileage in the country at 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway.

The Prius c is based on the sub-compact Toyota Yaris platform and is considerable smaller than the Prius liftback — 19-inches shorter with a 5.5-inch shorter wheelbase and weighing 500-pounds less. Likewise, the Hybrid Synergy Drive has been shrunk to suit the car's diminutive dimensions. The c is powered by a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 29 percent smaller nickel-metal hydride battery that resides under the rear seat. The drivetrain is mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT).

The combined system from the small 4-cylinder and two electric motor generators makes 99 horsepower; this translates into something between slow and slower. The numbers suggest a sedate pace, measured at 0-to-60 in the upper reaches of 10 seconds and at about 18 seconds with the pedal to the floor over a quarter mile.

If your goal is better mileage engage the "ECO" feature and the throttle response dulls by decreasing the throttle's maximum opening by 12 percent. As a side feature, the air conditioner's effectiveness is reduced. Your ECO savings is displayed in the gas mileage readout, which can be seen for each trip you make.

There's also an EV button that will leave the car on battery power under 25 mph for up to a mile. That would be a useful feature for cruising over to mom's house less than a mile away in the same subdivision. Keep it in EV too long, Toyota says, and the battery will be drained causing the gas engine to run longer to recharge it.

For the best and most rewarding results we recommend driving in normal mode using good driving

The driving experience is more like a typical gas-driven sub-compact than a hybrid in the tradition of the standard Prius. The steering is quick and accurate and the suspension is tuned to keep the little hatchback planted on twists and turns. At the same time, ride comfort is not compromised although road imperfections can be felt.

The Prius c's dash, although a bit unconventional features a user-friendly design like several Toyota products over the years, with the gauges centrally mounted at the top. Seems a bit odd, but we found them easy to read without taking eyes off the road.

Our test car did not include navigation, which meant the radio had old-fashioned pre-set push buttons, a feature we like. Climate controls, at the bottom of the stack, are easy to use, as well.

While the Prius c has all the requisite safety equipment, a backup ca
mera is not offered in any trim level. We think Toyota should rethink this omission and at least make it available with the navigation-equipped cars.

There are four grades within the Prius c and they are appropriately na
med “One”, “Two”, “Three” and “Four”. Among interior technology in the top two grades is a Display Audio System with Navigation and Entune that has six speakers and a 6.1-inch touchscreen, SiriusXM Satellite Radio capability, HD Radio with iTunes tagging and advanced voice recognition.

Prices range from $18,950 to $23,230 for the top “Four” trim excluding destination charges. Our trim “Two” came in at $21,715 including destination charge. We could live with that trim level with one exception — satellite radio is not available. For that feature, we would be forced up to trim “Three”. We would also get navigation and keyless entry/ignition for a $1,735 price increase.

We think Toyota has done a very creditable job making the Prius line with its superior gas mileage available in an attractive package.

Base price: $18,950; as driven, $21,715
Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder, two electric motors
Horsepower: 99 @ 4,800 rpm
Torque: 82 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches
Length: 157.3 inches
Curb  weight: 2,500 pounds
Turning circle: 31.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 17.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 9.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 46 highway, 53 city
0-60: 10.6 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy
• Low purchase price for a hybrid
• Roomy interior

The Bad
• No backup camera available

The Ugly
• Slow acceleration