The 2012 Toyota Prius C has been a success from Day One, with strong sales for Toyota's new 50-mpg hybrid hatchback. If you're looking for the highest gas mileage of any non-plug-in vehicle on the market--but want something smaller and more nimble than the classic Prius liftback--the newest addition to the growing Toyota Prius line is well worth a look. At just 157 inches long, it sits squarely in the subcompact segment.
While both the new Prius C and the traditional Prius liftback model have the same EPA combined rating of 50 mpg, the 2012 Prius C is better in urban driving. Its ratings are 53 mpg city and 46 mpg on the highway--reflecting the challenge of improving the aerodynamics in such a short, stubby car.
The Prius C is a more conventional looking car than the larger Prius. In the showroom, you might not know it's a hybrid at all. It's a typical five-door subcompact about the same size as the gasoline Yaris subcompact it sits next to, with a few of the same design cues but with a low front end and swept-back headlamps that give it some Prius style. Inside, there's an all-new dashboard that blends the central high-level Multi-Information Display mounted at the base of the windshield with some controls and switches from the Yaris. Reflecting Toyota's efforts to keep the price under $20,000, there's a conventional "gear shift" lever rather than the little Prius stalk, and base models do without push-button start.
Its powertrain is similarly downsized, with a 73-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired to a more compact version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, using two motor-generators to recapture energy and propel the car, either alone or together with engine torque. Total power output is 99 hp. Unlike the similarly sized Honda Insight mild hybrid, the Prius C can travel short distances on battery power alone--though not for as far or as fast as its larger sibling. There's an Eco mode, which remaps electronic settings to conserve fuel even more--at the expense of acceleration and the ability to blast the heat or air conditioning--but no Sport mode. The "EV" mode will get you up to half a mile of electric-only driving, but only at speeds up to 25 mph.
Inside, front seats are comfortable, with more than adequate headroom and legroom, and the rear seats will hold six-foot adults, if not in particularly spacious splendor. Toyota has cleverly downsized the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack to just 0.9 kilowatt-hours, and managed to package it not beneath the load deck--as in the Insight--but under the rear seat. This means that the load bay, while short in length, is deeper than in other small hybrids, and it makes the car much more practical than you'd expect.
The trim and materials are more clearly built to a price than those in the more expensive and larger Prius models. As well as hard plastic surfaces--albeit with attractive patterns that disguise its humble surface--there are areas where painted metal is visible as well. Call it thrifty, not grim. And the cars we drove were all extremely well assembled. The Prius C has nine airbags as standard, along with the usual suite of electronic safety systems. So far, it hasn't been rated by the NHTSA or IIHS.
Handling is hardly in the hot-hatch mode like a Mazda2 or a VW Golf, but the Prius C is nimble and maneuverable. It's far less numb than the larger Prius models, and unless the engine is running at full tilt, the sound insulation is good for a subcompact as well.
The payoff, of course, comes at the gasoline pump. In a 50-mile road test around all sorts of San Diego roads, from freeways to stop-and-go suburban crawl, we got 51.4 mpg. With gas prices high, and a purchase price that starts at just $19,710 including delivery, that's a winning combination. And the difference between a Prius C and a comparably equipped Yaris is really only $2,000 or $3,000--meaning that we suspect the Prius C will continue to do as well in the showroom as it did when it launched.
Four levels of trim are offered—known as One, Two, Three, and Four. The Prius C One comes with an impressive level of standard equipment, including keyless entry, automatic climate control, power accessories, and a sound system that includes iPod capability and a USB port. Move up to the Prius C Three and you get a navigation system and Toyota's Entune interface, while the Prius C Four adds fog lamps, alloy wheels, and heated seats. The only available options are alloy wheels and a moonroof, which can be ordered together or separately.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Toyota Prius C on our sister site, TheCarConnection.