Car review: 2012 Toyota Prius C

By Manufacturer, Cars.com

When you think of a $19,000 subcompact car with an advanced hybrid system -- and a backseat -- you expect the interior to be low-rent. That's not the case here. While the base Prius c One is equipped with seating materials that could have been on a 1982 Corolla, the rest of the cabin materials are on par with competitors like Ford and Hyundai's sub-$20,000 cars.

Plastics on all trim levels have a variety of patterns and textures. There are so many varying grains on the dash that there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to them. Wouldn't one or two have sufficed versus five or six?

But the patterns -- along with the nice color accents in higher trims -- exude a funkiness that shoppers might appreciate.

The interior space is a big surprise. Passenger volume is 87.4 cubic feet, which tops the larger Insight's 85 cubic feet and the Fiesta's 85.1 cubic feet, while falling short of the Accent's 90.1 cubic feet. The Accent is one of the more spacious-feeling subcompacts on the market.

At 5-foot-10, I was perfectly comfortable in the driver and front passenger seats over hours of driving. That included the Prius c One's low-grade fabric seats as well as the Four's SofTex seats. Standard on that trim level, SofTex is a synthetic leather that's purportedly ecologically friendly. The Four's seats are also heated and sport their own intricate graining.

Each seat type featured nice bolsters and a fair amount of thigh support considering the generally upright seating position.

While a 6-foot-7 passenger looked comical crammed into the backseat, I fit just fine behind the driver's seat positioned where I'd put it to drive. I had inches of knee room and more than enough headroom. However, the rear seatbacks lean back more than I like, a design to ensure passengers' heads fit under a concave area in the roof liner above the cargo area.

Spread around the cabin for both the driver and passengers were numerous cubbies, all of which were large enough for smartphones or larger items.

The cargo area is rated 17.1 cubic feet, but it appeared much smaller than that. After checking the numbers with the Hyundai Accent, rated at 21.2 cubic feet, and the Ford Fiesta, at 15.4 cubic feet, I felt satisfied that the Prius c does fall right between the two. However, an average family's grocery trip would likely overwhelm the space, as would taking a couple of friends to the airport. The backseat does fold down, either in one piece -- in the Prius c One -- or in a 60/40 split in the other trim levels. Most likely, that utility will be enough for buyers of a vehicle this size.

Features and technology The Prius c comes decently equipped with features you might not expect in a sub-$20,000 car, including Bluetooth, hill start assist and USB inputs. However, it's the hybrid trip computer that will wow buyers of every trim level.

The vibrant 3.5-inch screen sits dead center in the instrument panel, which itself is dead center on top of the dashboard. It depicts the typical trip computer that hybrid drivers will recognize, including a graphic to show whether your driving style is using engine power or electric power, or if it's recharging the battery. The Prius c also features a new driving "score" to show how efficiently you're driving.

But that's not what will wow: Drivers can input both the current price of gas and the mileage of another car to show how much money the Prius c is saving them, in real time. The competing car would theoretically be the car you didn't buy instead of the Prius c, or your household's second car or truck. The bigger the difference in combined mileage, the more money you see accumulating in a variety of displays, whether for a single trip or over months and years.

The rest of the car's features can be broken down by trim level. Very few options are available.

The Prius c One starts at $18,950 (before a $760 destination charge) and includes a USB port, Bluetooth phone and audio, hill start assist, 15-inch steel wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a four-speaker stereo and steering-wheel-mounted audio, climate and phone controls.

The Prius c Two starts at $19,900 and adds a six-speaker stereo, a six-way adjustable driver's seat, a 60/40-split folding backseat, cruise control and a center armrest.

The Prius c Three starts at $21,635 and adds navigation and Toyota's Entune system, body-colored door handles, a Touch Tracer display, push-button start, and keyless entry and cargo area.

The Prius c Four starts at $23,230 and adds 15-inch alloy wheels, heated SofTex front seats, fog lamps and body-colored mirrors with integrated turn signals.

The only available options are 15-inch alloy wheels and a power moonroof for the Prius c Three and 16-inch alloy wheels with an upgraded suspension and moonroof for the Prius c Four.

I anticipate most shoppers will opt for the Two trim level in order to get creature comforts like the stereo, a height-adjustable front seat and higher-quality cloth seating. While the upgraded seats don't offer much difference in terms of comfort, their appearance improves upon the base model's seats.

The other two trim levels' relatively high prices may dissuade shoppers interested in the new "inexpensive" Prius, considering they can get into similarly equipped traditional gas cars for far less.

The standard navigation system on the Prius c Three and Four is similar to the one found in the new Camry, which I think is better for entertainment uses, like iPod and Pandora internet radio integration, versus reading maps or finding a proper route to a destination. It's a good system overall, but with a relatively small 6.1-inch touch-screen. The stereo interface in other trim levels is a pretty straightforward one, with knobs and buttons and a small text display for song and artist information.

The six-speaker stereo in the Two, Three and Four trims isn't powerful, but its clarity is good. I'm guessing Toyota tried to save some weight with the speakers, sacrificing sound quality in favor of lightness. That's an easy fix for music-conscious customers, but I'd like to see a better green-friendly stereo, at least in the top trim level.

Safety

The Prius c comes standard with nine airbags. In addition to frontal and side-impact airbags for the front seats and curtains for the front and rear occupants, there's a driver's knee airbag and two seat-cushion airbags for the driver and front passenger. These airbags don't directly protect occupants; they inflate to better position the driver and passenger in relation to the other airbags in the car in the event of a crash.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had crash-tested the Prius c as of this writing.

Prius c in the market Before driving the Prius c, I already firmly believed that no matter what I discovered behind the wheel, buyers would line up for the car because of its price and impressive mileage figures.

The pleasant surprises I found in terms of ride quality, spaciousness and features only cemented that prediction. Until another automaker -- Asian, domestic or European -- can find a way to offer this level of value and efficiency, there simply won't be a competitor for the Prius c.

© 2012, Cars.com