Could anyone have forecast the success of the ugly little hybrid Toyota introduced back in 1997, when oil cost about $20 a barrel? "Yes," says a grinning Satoshi Ogiso. The Toyota chief engineer has been involved in Prius development since the beginning and has been gratified to see more than three million of his babies roll out of dealerships worldwide.
However, those impressive sales aside, the Prius's luster has started to dull. Just about every automaker of consequence now offers a gas-electric competitor, and, thanks mostly to Toyota's slow adoption of lithium-ion batteries -- the Prius Plug-in hybrid finally goes on sale this year -- some perform better than the Prius. It's been worth wondering of late if Ogiso and his team have milked all they can out of their hybrid head start.
Not so fast. If it's now relatively easy to build a hybrid, it's still very difficult to build a cheap one, which is exactly what Toyota has just accomplished. "My goal was to create an attainable hybrid...and not compromise the technology," says Ogiso. That, in a nutshell, is the 2012 Prius C, the newest and smallest member of the Toyota hybrid family.
Moving down a weight class
In pictures the new C looks a lot like its larger relatives, featuring the same Kammback profile as the Prius and Prius V hatchbacks. It also employs now familiar Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, which, consists of a small four-cylinder gas engine running on the Atkinson cycle, an electric motor, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, and a continuously variable transaxle.
In person, however, it's apparent that the Prius C is a much smaller and therefore different vehicle. Indeed, it derives its underpinnings not from the Prius but from the recently revised Yaris subcompact. This required all the hybrid components to similarly slim down. A 1.5-liter rather than a 1.8-liter four-cylinder lives under the hood with a similarly smaller, lighter power inverter. The battery pack consists of 120 cells rather than 168, saving some 25 pounds and allowing it to fit under the rear bench seat without intruding into the cargo hold. The most complex component, the CVT transaxle that also contains the electric motor, is cooled by its own transmission fluid rather than by water, which means it can do without a bulky radiator.
The sum of all these smaller parts is that the Prius C weighs 2496 pounds -- about 500 pounds less than the regular Prius. In fact, it's slightly lighter than a Ford Fiesta with a stick shift.
Despite its smaller package, the C packs the same fuel-efficiency punch as its big brother -- a 50 mpg combined EPA rating. Ogiso credits fast improving software for being able to eke more performance out of a smaller battery pack. The C actually scores a bit better than the regular Prius in the city, at 53 mpg, though it does worse on the highway at 46 mpg. Those numbers easily surpass those of the C's closest competitor, the 42-mpg Honda Insight. And although the new Prius gives up more than a foot in length to the Honda hybrid, it offers more passenger and cargo volume.
Pinching pennies for planet Earth
For all the advanced engineering that went into downsizing the Prius, Toyota resorted to somewhat less elegant methods to reduce the price from the larger car's $24,760 sticker to the C's $19,710. Though the Prius C can be had with all the amenities we've recently come to expect of subcompacts, including a touchscreen navigation system, pushbutton start, and aluminum wheels, you won't find them on the Prius C One, as the base model is called. It also does without a telescoping steering wheel, adjustable front headrests, and a split folding rear seat. You can have your dashboard in any color, so long as it's black (higher grade models get a splash of white on the dash, along with tasteful blue trim).
At least steering wheel audio controls, power windows and locks, and a USB connector survive the cost cutting. So does automatic climate control, which Ogiso says is too important to the hybrid's performance to eliminate. The larger Prius' annoying H-pattern shifter and electronic parking brake are apparently not quite as important, as both are thankfully missing from all Prius C models.
In any guise, the Prius c's interior has too many hard plastics to match segment leaders like the Ford Fiesta and Kia Rio, but its cheerful, modern design and a few hybrid-specific touches save it from being dour. As in all Prius models, the gauges live in the center of the dash and includes a 3.5-inch color display that encourages efficient driving with a variety of eco scores. There's even a mode that will allow you to keep track of how much money you're saving. You enter the gas price and a comparative fuel economy rating -- say, the Fiesta's 33 mpg combined rating -- and the car will add up all that gas money for you.
"A little more feisty"
The years of refinement baked into Toyota's hybrid technology is readily apparent from behind the wheel. The unpleasant characteristics that once typified these complex machines, like uneven throttle delivery and course engine startup have receded or disappeared entirely. The regenerative brakes are particularly impressive, having shed most of the sponginess that hampered earlier systems, leaving only a hint of grabbiness during stop-and-go traffic.
The subtlety of the hybrid bits leaves a car that for better or for worse, drives pretty much like the Yaris on which it's based. The "better" is its surprisingly lively handling and well-tuned electric power steering -- this being a more youth-oriented vehicle, Ogiso wanted it to be a "little more feisty" than the regular Prius. The "worse" is a brittle ride and twitchiness at speeds higher than 80 mph (the "C" stands for "city," with good reason). And despite its lightness and its sporting pretensions, the Prius C can feel even more lugubrious than its 99-hp net rating might indicate. Some of the blame goes to the CVT transmission, through which the 1.5-liter groans plaintively at full throttle. Then there's the gas pedal's unusually short range of travel, which makes it difficult to modulate acceleration and enhances the sense that it's really software, and not your right foot that's meting out air and fuel to the engine.
It's hard to argue with that software's decision making, though. Even as we hammer up Southern California foothills and chase after our photographer with no regard for saving gas, our observed fuel economy hovers around 45 mpg. And on a ride through San Diego with my lead foot safely confined to the passenger's footwell and a more responsible journalist at the wheel, we see 56 mpg. As in other hybrids there's an even more efficient eco mode, but activating it dulls the already sluggish throttle response. There's also an EV mode, in which the C can theoretically travel up to 25 mph with no help from the gas engine. We say theoretically because it requires so gentle a touch on the gas pedal that it's unrealistic anywhere beyond a parking lot.
Conclusion: Great hybrid; intriguing subcompact
For green car enthusiasts on a tight budget (and, yes, they are enthusiasts), this is a no brainer. The Prius C is a good hybrid -- a damn good hybrid, actually. And even in fully equipped, Prius C Four trim, it costs $23,990 -- about the same as a stripped out, fleet-only version of the full-size Prius.
For the average subcompact or compact car buyer, the picture is a bit hazier. As with the regular Prius, the C competes against more luxurious, more comfortable, and better driving gasoline-engine cars. A $19,710 hatchback with steel wheels is hard to swallow in this age of "premium" small cars. The fuel savings, though certainly meaningful in this price sensitive segment, are still not quite enough to offset the additional initial investment. According to our paper napkin calculations, it would take about six years of driving 20,000 miles per year to make up the difference between a Prius C and a base Fiesta (assuming $4-a-gallon gas). Even so, the Prius C is an interesting -- and we think very worthwhile -- experiment in the subcompact segment. Just as premium small cars like the Fiesta and the Mini Cooper have brought the performance, luxury, and style of bigger cars to entry-level buyers, the Prius C makes the hard-to-measure but very real appeal of virtuousness more affordable.
2012 Prius COn sale: Spring 2012
Base price: $19,710
Engine: 1.5L I-4, 73 hp, 82 lb-ft
Motor: 60 hp
Total output: 99 hp
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Fuel economy: 53/46/50 city/highway/combined (est.)