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2012 Prius c Impresses, Even Out of its Element

Baby Prius finds sweet spot on price, fuel economy.

by on Sep.12, 2012

Even though long-distance cruising isn't what it does best, the Toyota Prius c returned 46 mpg on a 1,150 trip.

When planning a bladder-busting road trip, deciding which car to bring is a key decision.

Let’s consider the contenders. In this corner, we have a 2013 Toyota Prius c, the new baby in the four-member Prius family of hybrids. The challenger: a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan.

The trip was a follow-up to visit to our new freshman at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, a 530-mile drive. Our cavernous challenger would provide extra space for stuff that our young student forgot in the first go round. But at 23 mpg on the freeway, a loan might be necessary to pay for the fuel.

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So the kid will have to live without his snowboard until Thanksgiving (this is Houghton; snow before Thanksgiving is not out of the question).

That’s because of the critical number for the Prius c: 46. That’s the average fuel economy for our trip, which totaled 1,150 miles.

Toyota scrimps a bit on the interior trimmings, instead putting the money into the Prius c's advanced hybrid powertrain.

While hybrids do best in city driving where regenerative braking can recharge the battery, this trip proved that they can also provide fuel-efficient long-distance cruising.

And we didn’t baby it, regularly driving 10 over the posted speed limits.

In reality, we had plenty of room for what we needed from it. Driver and passenger had to fight with Shadow, the world’s most laid-back border collie, for elbow space on the small center console armrest, but other than that, the two humans on the trip had enough space for cellphones, sunglasses cases and half-full Cheetos bags. With the 60/40 split folding seats down, there was plenty of space for our bags and junk for the new student. When the dog wasn’t trying to wedge himself between us, he had enough space to wander a bit and check out the view from multiple windows.

The instrument panel – typical for a member of the Prius family, it’s pushed toward the middle of the dash – is actually better than the Prius v, the uber model in the Prius family. The graphics are more helpful in getting the most out of the hybrid system. It has offers a “score” on your driving and a five-point scale on “start,” “cruise” and “stop.” It also clearly tells you when you’re in EV mode. At the end of a trip, it gives you stats including mileage and percentage of miles spent in EV mode. Very useful.

The Prius c's total hybrid system is rated at 99 horsepower compared to 134 for the regular Prius and Prius v.

Unfortunately, a low sun can render the IP all but invisible and the center console touchscreen sometimes disappears in certain lighting conditions. Also, some icons on the IP don’t dim with the rest of the lights.

As is typical of the Prius lineup, Toyota cuts corners on interior materials, which are mostly hard. The optional “SofTex” is supposed to replicate leather, but it doesn’t really feel or look like the real stuff. We also found the seats to be somewhat stiff and lumbar pushed uncomfortably on our lower backs.

The c is smaller than the regular Prius and the v, but it shape gives it quite a bit of cargo space.

As with most Toyota hybrids, acceleration is lacking. It had no trouble maintaining freeway speeds, but passing on two-lanes was a little dicey. It’s the price of having such lofty fuel economy numbers.

It handles nicely and rides well, except over sharp bumps at high speeds where its impact harshness is rather abrupt. Suspension tuning in short-wheelbase cars like the c is never easy.

The c’s regenerative braking was surprisingly difficult. Toyota is the unchallenged leader in hybrid development and in most of its cars that experience shows, particularly in regenerative braking. But the c’s brakes were somewhat difficult to modulate at slower speeds and grabby at creeping speeds.

The Prius c doesn’t use the same powertrain as its bigger brothers. Where the regular Prius and v use 98-horse 1.8-liter, the c gets a 1.5-liter four cylinder making 73 horsepower. Combined with an electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the continuously variable transmission, the hybrid system produces a total of 99 horses, compared to 134 for the bigger cars. But the c has only 2,500 pounds to move.

The CVT gives the powertrain a feeling as though the engine is connected to the wheels by a rubber band. It causes the engine to drone a little, but typical Prius buyers probably won’t mind.

The well-optioned Prius v that we tested recently priced at more than 36 grand which seems to push the envelope for a car aimed at saving its owners money, the c comes in at a far better price point.

The Prius c starts at $19,745, including destination. Prius trim levels are noted by numbers and this well-optioned Prius c 4 had a base price of $23,230. A $1,150 option package adds 16-inch alloy wheels and a power sunroof, for an as-tested price of $25,140.

Because the c is smaller, it has a taller greenhouse with a more upright windshield than the bigger versions, leading to more wind noise, particularly around the A pillars. Toyota also kept the price and weight down by scrimping on insulation, leading to excessive road noise.

The Prius c is more of what fans of the original like. While there are very few cars that can beat the original’s fuel economy, its little brother is one of them. If you value efficient motoring over driving fun and a great interior, the baby Prius is worth a look.


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