Even Toyota's best-selling Prius costs thousands more than a Toyota Yaris or Corolla, two cars that go from point A to point B while carrying five people. The 2012 Toyota Prius c obliterates the hybrid price penalty with a $19,000 starting price and a segment-leading 50 mpg combined.
The hybrid for the masses has arrived, and I honestly think Toyota won't be able to build enough of them to meet demand come March, when the car goes on sale. It comes in four trim levels, numbered One through Four.
Hybrid performance Like the familiar Prius liftback, the Prius c features Toyota's Synergy hybrid system, which has been refined to the point where we've observed its 50 mpg estimate over hundreds of real-world miles since the liftback's 2009 debut.
The Prius c teams a smaller four-cylinder gasoline engine -- 1.5 liters and 73 horsepower -- with an electric motor, for a combined 99-hp rating. The battery pack features fewer battery cells -- 120 versus 168 -- so it can fit tightly underneath the rear seats instead of under the cargo area, where it is in the traditional Prius. Other fuel-saving elements have also been downsized, like a smaller electric power steering system, to aid efficiency.
Mileage ratings are 53/46 mpg city/highway, and 50 mpg combined. The regular Prius gets an EPA-estimated 51/48 mpg and the same combined rating.
In terms of driving performance, the Prius c is about as exciting as you might predict, which is not very. But compare it with traditional high-mileage subcompacts like the Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta, and it gives up little ground, despite its sub-100-hp rating. Toyota said it can reach 60 mph in 11.5 seconds, but the car seemed faster merging onto the highway.
During a number of driving routes of between 20 and 50 miles apiece, the worst mileage my driving partner and I returned was 46.6 mpg, while the best was 54.4 mpg. The tests were done in hilly California in optimal 60-degree weather. While coasting downhill, you can shift the Prius c into a B mode for aggressive brake regeneration to fill the hybrid battery to its maximum level.
At the bottom of the hill, through residential streets, we engaged EV mode, which runs the Prius c on electric power only. Even in this mode, keeping the gas engine from activating requires slow and steady acceleration that would aggravate anyone behind you in traffic. Nor can you exceed 25 mph. It took practice, but both of us were able to travel a few miles in EV through a busy downtown area and through a few quiet streets.
On one route, using the B setting and EV mode, we traveled nearly 10 miles and returned 99.9 mpg.
Then we headed back uphill.
A hybrid isn't a magical car. The Prius c's tiny engine strained going up steep hills -- as do many subcompacts, like those mentioned above -- and mileage dropped significantly. That said, the 46 mpg figure we hit was in the top trim level, the Four, which we pushed pretty hard. It was also equipped with optional 16-inch alloy wheels, which come in a package that also includes a slightly more aggressive suspension and steering system, and we wanted to see how fun the most fun version of the c could possibly be.
The fact that we accelerated as aggressively as any driver would, including on the longest highway stretch of the day, and still returned 46 mpg was as impressive as the 99.9 mpg we'd already marveled at.
The Prius c Four handled better than the rest of the lineup without giving up what is a remarkably comfortable ride. The c's 100.4-inch wheelbase is longer than those of the Yaris and Fiesta (about 98 inches) which helps in terms of ride comfort. The Accent's 101.2-inch wheelbase is slightly longer. The Prius c is slightly shorter from bumper to bumper than the Fiesta and Accent hatchbacks, and it's a few inches longer than the four-door Yaris hatchback.
Steering was less sharp in the other Prius c models, with much more play in the steering wheel. While I wouldn't call any of the trims a fun car to pilot through twisty roads, they're more than adequate for the typical commuter.
The standard low-rolling-resistance tires offered decent grip and didn't add excessive road noise. Overall, road noise was better than average for the subcompact class. The Prius c rides and feels worlds apart from the rough-riding Honda Insight -- a dedicated hybrid model at a similar price with significantly lower fuel efficiency. The two have nearly identical wheelbases, but the Prius c is 15 inches shorter overall. The Prius c also weighs nearly 250 pounds less.
The Prius c's braking was typical of hybrids with regenerative brakes. They feel spongy as the hybrid system engages to recapture energy for the battery. But at least it felt like a consistent, predictable sponge. I find the entire Toyota lineup generally lackluster in terms of braking feel, and the Prius c stopped more responsively than the non-hybrid 2012 Camry I recently tested.