Auto News: Mr. Green Car: Prius C — the inexpensive hybrid

The Toyota Prius C gets 53 city/46 highway miles per gallon, and owners report averaging 53.2 miles per gallon. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

With millions of hybrid Toyota Priuses on the road, the market-dominating manufacturer has been expanding the choices based on this popular platform. There is a plug-in Prius, a bigger, station wagonish version, the Prius V, and a new slightly smaller, economical model, the Prius C, which is the subject of this review.

To expand sales into the lower end of the automotive market, Toyota stripped some of the frills from a regular Prius. Their aim — to have the lowest-priced hybrid available.

The price, as tested, was a handful of dollars under $20,000 — which is a price point where many of the new compact cars are ending up after loading them up with options and upgrade packages. In the Prius C, you’ll be missing out on the frills, but saving big dough with great fuel economy. Want to spend more? There are many options to personalize your Prius C. (Toyota uses the lower case “c” with this car; I’m using upper case for easier reading.)

Toyota Prius C. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

I was quite intrigued by this car. My wife spotted a coral-colored (“Habanero”) one on a recent trip to San Diego, Calif. — “I like that!” So, for her, I did some online research of auto magazine reviews. One reviewer for Road & Track really did not like its performance. Now, I had to know.

Anderson Toyota’s sales manager, Troy Hancock, let me have their one and only metallic black Prius C for as long a drive as I’d like. I took advantage of his offer and drove it much more than most of my review cars. What I found disproved the Road & Track negative review.

First, I took note of the interior. It is all hard plastic; no vinyl. But it is textured in a pleasing way, and combined in colors and patterns that do not scream cheap.

The two-tone cloth seats were quite comfortable. There was room for four adults to ride in comfort. My legs had no conflicts with the interior.

Several useful spaces were provided for stuff and beverage holders. Visibility out is good, except to the rear, where a smallish backlight is

Toyota Prius C. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

blocked by the rear seat headrests.

Gone is the keyless start — just a regular, old-fashioned key on the steering column. I did find it odd that one had to turn the key to start the car, like you normally would — except that it does not start — it is just “ready.” Keyless start is an available option. The cost to replace one of these electronic fobs is quite expensive — I’d stick with a key. It is ready to roll on one of its two electric motors, until speed or climate control demand the engine starts.

Despite using it several times, the floor-mounted shifter comes off as a bit odd — the position and the accompanying letter don’t line up, and it does not feel natural — but it would be something one would quickly become accustomed to. The electronic-controlled continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) has only reverse, neutral, drive and “B,” which is for engine braking, such as for going down a long, steep hill.

A nearby parking lot found the handling excellent. I also discovered it had a forklift-like ultra-tight turning radius. Parallel parking should be a cinch in the smallest of spaces.

Next, I drove off onto the streets to test ride and acceleration. I did note that as the Prius C changes from electric drive to running with the engine,

Toyota Prius C. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

there is a moment when the engine buzzes a bit as the transmission spins and engages. It was not long before I ceased to noticed this happening.

There are no “gears” per se in a CVT transmission; the transmission matches the load to engine power as needed in a seamless fashion.

City street acceleration was adequate and even from a dead stop to freeway speed, and a bit beyond, proved to be plenty for the average driver. Perhaps the Road & Track tester had mistakenly left the power selected in the ECO mode, which de-tunes the engine and air-conditioning to have slower responses and, therefore, better fuel economy. Other Priuses have this feature, and the owners report it feels sluggish. Most feel more comfortable in normal mode. The Prius C does not have the “power” mode its bigger siblings have. Edmunds’ test says 0-60 was a leisurely 11.3 seconds — I believe most owners will be satisfied with its acceleration — I was.

The Prius C does have an EV mode that is pure electric, but it is limited to 10 mph — then, the engine will start anyway after a display warning, “EV mode deactivated for excessive speed.” I found in normal mode it ran on pure electric power quite a bit and switched from electric to gas at about 18 mph under normal conditions. The EV mode may be preferred in stop-and-go traffic jams. Ride was typical of a small car, but with little harshness on the rougher surfaces.

Like all hybrids, it is eerily quiet at stops. I like to turn off the A/C and fan and roll down the windows, just to experience the quiet. Don’t like the quiet? The sound system more than adequately fills your cabin with music. The speed display is a large digital number in the center of the dash. There, one finds the smallish display of other information. Following shutdown, a “trip summary” comes up showing your miles and fuel economy and trip cost. But I had to lean forward to read it.

Owners will be happy with the numbers they are reading. EPA rates the Prius C at 53 city/46 highway miles per gallon (compared to 51/48 for a regular Prius). Owners report averaging 53.2 miles per gallon. The window sticker gives the Prius C a “10” or best rating for fuel economy and a “7” for smog/pollution rating. This smog rating earns it a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) rating. The sticker claims the average annual fuel cost would be $1,100, and save you $7,100 over five years compared to an “average” car. That’s where the real beauty of the Prius C lies.

The Prius C has nine airbags and many other safety features, but has not been rated yet. Warranty is eight years/100,000 miles for the hybrid system, 60 months/60,000 miles powertrain and 36 months/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

The Prius C is 100 percent sourced and built in Japan. Why, I’m not sure. A lot will be sold here, and it would seem prudent to build them here, rather than ship them halfway around the planet. Despite the lack of domestic production, I’ll have to give the Prius C two thumbs up. If you can live without fancy appointments in your car and are happy with good economical performance, the Prius C should be on your short list of cars to buy.

A reader recently challenged my statement that the Kia Soul should attain 40 mpg. His experience was less than EPA ratings, much less than my optimistic 40 mpg. I had started guessing/assuming some of these cars rated at 35 highway mpg should do better — that is something I will no longer do. I will report the EPA ratings, or if there are owner reports of mileage on the EPA site or other independent testing for the review vehicle — I may report those and note them as such. No more guessing.

From the June 27-July 3, 2012, issue

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