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First Drive: 2013 Toyota Prius c

March 7th, 2012


Latest Addition to the Prius Family Goes Conventional

     Having narrowly escaped a late February snow storm in Michigan and finding ourselves stepping off of a plane near the Atlantic beaches of lower Florida seemed like a dream come true. Certainly a trip to the beach town that curiously shares its name with a 1958 base model Chevrolet had a catch. Yes, that catch was that we were to sample Toyota’s newest and, as executives stressed, last planned member of the Prius family. While having earned a reputation in the industry as the leading hybrid, we have never been overly excited about the Toyota Prius. The Prius has managed to win over fuel misers and environmental advocates, but to say it has been generally disliked by driving enthusiasts would be a gross understatement. We were expecting that the smallest member of Toyota’s hybrid lineup, the Prius c, would be more of the same and figured our drive of the 98 hp fuel sipper would be the low point of our stint in Florida.
     At first glance one would speculate that the Prius c is just a standard Prius liftback with a few inches and pounds lopped off. Under further investigation it becomes apparent that this small Prius has little physically in common with the liftback model other than the name. The Prius c is actually based on the same platform as the smallest car in Toyota’s lineup, the unloved Yaris. As a descendant of the Toyota  Echo and Tercel, our hearts weren’t exactly pumping at the thought of a hybrid based off of these forgettable point A to B forms of transportation. Toyota distributed photographic evidence to emphasize the Prius c’s lower roofline and enhanced aerodynamics as compared to the lesser Yaris.
     Mechanically, the Prius c doesn’t even carry over the larger Prius liftback powertrain. This newest member of the Prius family utilizes an updated version of Toyota’s 16 valve 1.5-liter DOHC 4 cylinder. This unit pushes out a meager 73 hp and 82 ft-lbs of torque. We mention this only because if that engine ran unassisted by electric motors it would produce 28 less horsepower than the 1.4-liter in the already slow FIAT 500. Sadly, the Prius c doesn’t even top that car’s 101 hp with its combined gas/electric horsepower rating totaling 98. To improve fuel economy and aide in serviceability Toyota has removed the drive belt and spins all the accessories by means of electric motors, including the water pump. The Prius c uses only 120 cell nickel metal hydride batteries as opposed to the standard Prius’ 168 cells, and consequently offers only 0.87 kW hours rather than 1.2 kW hours. This allows the battery weight to be reduced by 10% and battery volume by 12%. Fuel economy is relatively incremental over the standard size Prius with a 53/46 mpg city/highway rating as opposed to 51/48.  That small difference is allegedly due to the challenges in aerodynamics resulting from the Prius c’s stubby length. Weight is kept impressively low at 2,500 pounds, which is quite light considering the batteries and electric motors required to propel this hybrid.
     Never fans of the low grade interior in the Prius liftback we were further discouraged when Toyota revealed photos of the Prius c at the North American Auto Show. Covered with black and white plastic, it looked as if it would be glossy enough to be found on the dash of a Fisher Price Cozy Coupe. We were relieved to discover that the materials aren’t nearly that low-grade and are perhaps even better than the birchbark textured covering that mars the interior of the standard Prius. The shape of the dash imitates a question mark and while the look is unusual it abounds with purposeful storage cubbies.
     One of the few familiar features found on the Prius c interior is the steering wheel. This wheel is carried over from the other Prius family members which is quite unfortunate since we have complained about the sandpaper texture and the large air bag cover that prevents Toyota from placing the speedometer in the proper place directly in front of the driver. Fortunately, the narrower interior of the Prius c places the digital speedometer and ancillary displays farther to the left than in the grown-up liftback and v models. Noticeably absent is the gimmicky joy-stick shift lever and pushbutton ‘park’ setting. The Prius c mercifully makes do with a conventional gated shifter with proper location for the familiar PRND sequence, plus the unusual simulated low gear labeled ‘B’. Toyota’s Entune smartphone integration is available, although we didn’t have the opportunity to test it out. Navigating through the system menu resulted in us discovering features that allow the driver to track their economy against their ‘personal best’ economy performances, as well as the fuel economy of hypothetical other vehicles. If the driver chooses they can even calculate the amount of money saved by driving their Prius c city car rather than that SUV their neighbor lumbers around in.
     Having driven the Prius c back-to-back with a 2012 Prius liftback, we had expectations of the numb handling the anti-car crowd expects in a hybrid. We typically feel as if our automotive soul has been extracted while driving the standard Prius, so we were shocked to discover that the c has relatively direct and responsive steering. Indeed, we have long complained that hybrids cater only to those who drive cars because they have to, not because they enjoy them. The Prius c is certainly a step in the right direction for the enthusiast.  Unfortunately, our limited time with the car did not give an opportunity to really toss the car into corners, so an extensive analysis of the handling will have to wait. Hopefully future drives will be in the Four model featuring 16” rims in place of the standard 15″ wheels. We expect that will do wonders to advance the hybrid driving experience despite a very un-welcome additional 6 feet of turning radius on the larger tires. There is no doubt that the car’s forte is city driving. After 45 minutes of stop and go traffic in sunny Florida we discovered that the car was largely content to creep via electric power. The car still had a surprising amount of shudder when transitioning back into gas assisted mode. We hope this was simply a matter of the car’s pre-production status.
     Prius c pricing will be critical to this car’s success. The base Prius c One starts at $18,950, followed (obviously) by the Two, Three and Four at $19,900, $21,635, and $23,230 respectively. We think the base price is low enough to compel budget minded buyers who want to gain entry into the hybrid world but previously couldn’t afford the $24,000 starting price of the Prius liftback. Fortunately, they will not have to put up with the many idiosyncrasies that automakers seem to think hybrid buyers want. While we expected the Prius c to merely be a city version of the well-known Prius, it has instead become a hybrid offering that looks and functions much more like a normal car. For that, color us both surprised and pleased.

The Good:
Hybrid economy, direct handling, accessible price point, functions more like a conventional car.
The Bad:
Toyota has been selling hybrids for more than a decade and the system still shudders when transitioning from gas to electric power? Looks no better than a Yaris, incremental fuel economy gains over senior Prius models.
The Verdict:
Finally a Prius that looks and drives like a conventional car.

Photos by Erich Gernand

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