The 2012 Toyota Prius C may be the most surprising entry in the expanding Prius range.
It's smaller, less unusually styled, and about $5,000 less expensive than the standard Prius liftback.
And it's more fun to drive (relatively) than its larger siblings.
It also gets real-world gas mileage of 50 mpg or more; we saw 51.4 miles per gallon over a 50-mile test drive combining San Diego freeways, two-lane roads through rolling hills, and urban stop-and-go.
The EPA rates the 2012 Prius C at 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway, for the same combined 50-mpg rating as the larger Prius.
Unlike the Prius liftback, which has the interior volume of a mid-size car, the Prius C is a compact car (according to EPA classifications) but Toyota considers it a subcompact in their lineup. Got that?
On the road, almost nimble
Our impressions from two different tests of a base model and a top-of-the-line Prius C Four are that the little Prius is a perfect car for city driving, small and easily maneuvered. It's no Lexus at highway speeds, but it's not meant to be.
On the road, the low-rolling resistance tires deliver a firm ride that can get busy and jiggly on some surfaces. The Prius C can be noisy at speed, and there's more electric motor whine than in other models.
There's not a lot of top-end acceleration, and the engine will howl when the accelerator is floored. In this smaller car, though, the effect is less jarring than it is in the larger, quieter Prius models, where the contrast is more startling.
Some Prius design cues, but not all
2012 Toyota Aqua hybrid (2012 Toyota Prius C)Enlarge Photo
The 2012 Toyota Prius C is a five-door hatchback, like its big brother, but its styling is more conventional. It could almost be an alternate design for the new 2012 Yaris subcompact.
It doesn't, for instance, have the split rear window in the liftgate that its much longer sibling does; the rear window is a single pane of glass.
Inside, the 2012 Toyota Prius C has an all-new dashboard that draws its centrally mounted Multi Information Display at the base of the windshield from the larger Prius, and some of its switches and minor controls from the Yaris.
Hard plastic, but well designed
The interior of the Prius C has lots of hard plastics, but their patterns and texturing alleviate the economy-car effect. Front seats are comfortable, and even the rear seat--which sits high over the battery pack and gas tank--will hold 6-foot adults, who have plenty of foot-room under the front seats.
One notable departure from previous Prius models: The "gear-shift" lever to put the car into Drive is a conventional chrome lever that sticks up from the console between the seats, rather than the Space Age lever sprouting from the dashboard seen in every other Prius.
2012 Toyota Prius C, drive event, La Jolla, CA, Feb 2012Enlarge Photo
And, base Prius C One models don't have the customary Prius push-button start, but use a conventional ignition key.
Toyota has clearly worked to keep cost down in its smallest hybrid, with painted metal visible inside on the window surrounds and hatchback, but the effect is thrifty rather than grim.
Clever Eco Savings calculator
Toyota has added a very clever feature to the digital information display, one that we think could help sell the Prius C to first-time buyers.
It's called the Eco Savings function, and it simply calculates the money you'll save on gas costs by driving a Prius C against another vehicle.