The 2013 Toyota Prius C, the smallest and least expensive hybrid offered by Toyota, continues essentially unchanged from the car that debuted last year. Like the rest of the Prius family of four vehicles, it's a "dedicated hybrid," meaning it comes only with a hybrid powertrain--there's no gasoline version offered.
The five-door hatchback is classified as a subcompact by Toyota, and costs about $5,000 less than the Prius liftback that defines the Prius image. The smaller Prius C is simpler in its styling, looking more like a conventional hatchback that happens to have a very smooth and rounded nose and swept-back headlamps. The rear window in its upright tailgate is a single piece of glass, rather than the two-pane design of the liftback, and especially from the rear, it doesn't necessarily read "Prius" or "hybrid" visually.
Inside, the interior blends some of the Prius traits--the high-level Multi-Information Display at the top of the dash--with a large dose of economy-car upholstery and hard plastics. To keep costs down, some of the interior surfaces are plain painted metal, but it's cheerfully honest about its thrifty lifestyle. The lowest-level model even has a conventional ignition key, although in pursuit of more mileage, all models come with automatic climate control so the control systems can most efficiently allocate power and energy.
Seats are comfortable, and there's more room than you might expect--though this is no mid-size sedan. The switchgear is a mix of a few Prius pieces with a lot of Yaris, including a conventional "gear lever," meaning that from the driver's seat, you might not know that it's a hybrid rather than a somewhat underpowered economy car.
Except, of course, for the 50-mpg EPA combined fuel efficiency rating--a number that equals the larger and pricier Prius liftback. The Prius C, however, gets a higher city rating (53 mpg) and a lower highway rating (47 mpg), pointing out that its small 1.5-liter engine and downsized battery pack have to work harder to move the car at freeway speeds. As always, your mileage will vary. But we've found that Prius models generally deliver real-world fuel economy that's close to their ratings, unlike some other new hybrid models that seem to fall short for almost every owner.
That 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at just 73 hp, tuned to work with a new and more compact version of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system with a pair of motor-generators that can power the car, alone or together with the engine, and recharge the battery under regenerative braking. The combined powertrain puts out just 99 hp, lower than the 120 to 130 hp typical even of subcompacts sold in the U.S. today.
Toyota has paid a lot of attention to the packing of the Prius C, cleverly fitting both the small 0.9-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and the 9.5-gallon gasoline tank below the rear seat. This gives a full-depth rear load bay--in contrast to the mild-hybrid Honda Insight, also a subcompact five-door hybrid, which puts its pack under the load bay, making it much shallower as a result.
On the road, the Prius C is far more entertaining to drive than the conventional Prius, which will seem ponderous and numb in comparison. Still, the littlest Prius is far from a performance car. Drivers have to work it hard to keep up with more aggressive traffic, and acceleration is no better than average for the class. Unlike its larger siblings, there's no Power or Sport mode, but it does offer both an "EV" mode--which keeps it in all-electric drive, though only for half a mile or so--and an "Eco" mode that caps power output and dials down the climate-control settings. We suggest avoiding Eco mode: It turns a car with only average performance into one that becomes maddeningly leisurely.
While the Prius C is surprisingly maneuverable--even nimble around town--it's far from delivering the dynamics of a hot hatch.
What it does deliver is fuel economy. In mixed driving around temperate San Diego, which included stop-and-go suburban traffic, winding two-lane roads, and a dollop of freeway mileage--we saw an average of 51.4 mpg, slightly better than the 50-mpg combined rating.
A base price just under $20,000 with delivery gives buyers a more affordable way to obtain the best combined gas mileage on sale in the U.S. And the Prius C is both more fun to drive and somewhat less oddball than the conventional Prius liftback. Even the most basic Prius C One model includes automatic climate control and a sound system that incorporates iPod capability and a USB port. One step up, the Prius C Three adds a navigation system with Toyota's Entune interface. Then the high-end Prius Four adds on top of that not only alloy wheels and heated seats, but also accessories like fog lamps. Buyers can add a few dealer custom items as well, but there's just one option package, which bundles together a moonroof with alloy wheels.
Last year, the Toyota Prius C was named an IIHS Top Safety Pick. As well as the usual safety aids--such as electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist--it comes with nine airbags.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Toyota Prius C on our sister site, TheCarConnection.