By Ben Bowers
on 2.10.12
Photo by Ben Bowers + Toyota

When it comes to cars, we spend most of our time fixated on rides that churn through a gallon of gas faster than a fat kid eats twinkies. Yet for all of our love for “driver’s cars”, we still acknowledge that practicality should be a major consideration when it comes to selecting a primary ride. So when Toyota invited us out to sunny San Diego to test drive the newest entry to the Prius family, the Prius C, we decided it was high time we routed some environmental karma points back to our corner. Little did we know that in less than 48 hours, the 1.5 liter, 73 horsepower whip would efficiently weasel its way into our octane pumping hearts. We had seen the light, and it was green.

Toyota essentially created the hybrid market in the US back in 2001 when the original Prius launched. Thanks to a rabid fan base, countless celebrity endorsements from Leonardo DiCaprio to Larry David, and an increased awareness of green living across the country, the Prius dominates the market to this day, representing over 50% of hybrids on the road in US. Based on this success, last year Toyota decided to extend the venerated brand into a small family of cars, optimized for various lifestyles. The Prius V, launched in 2011, is a larger version of the original liftback, designed as a green alternative for those in the station wagon or small SUV market. The new Prius C is aimed at a younger generation of first-time car owners or hybrid buyers, looking for a fuel-efficient ride to accommodate their urban lifestyle.

If you’re wondering what the “C” in the name refers to, it’s city, but “compact” or “cheap” would make the next logical choices. Both the original Prius and the Prius V come with a hybrid price penalty — meaning that they cost more than their comparably-sized gas-only competition. Fuel savings usually tip the scales in the opposite direction over the life of the car or at least balance things out. Still, the added premium has made obtaining a quality hybrid all that more difficult for younger consumers, and that’s where the Prius C comes in.

Starting at $18,950 with segment-leading 50 mpg in the city, it’s approachable by even those on a shoestring budget. The option’s scale doesn’t pull a rocketman either, with four class levels, conveniently dubbed 1, 2, 3, and 4, that top out at approximately $23,230k. Most of the differences between the models related to interior swag and have nothing to do with driving performance. Still, we had the chance to drive all four just to make sure.

The inside is also surprisingly comfortable compared to its exterior footprint, with a total of 87.4 cubic feet of interior space. The front seats fit two of us over 6′ with acceptable levels of leg and headroom — we didn’t try out the back seats. Similarly, by sticking close to the height and width of the original Prius, the C boasts a decent amount of interior cargo space, especially when the rear seats are folded. While we didn’t personally pack the car, a weekends worth of camping equipment or a trip to CostCo didn’t seem out of reach for drivers with some efficient packing chops.

Plenty of amenities come standard with the car as well, including nine airbags, proximity keys, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a USB port, auto-climate control, and Bluetooth phone connectivity. It was a small tweak, but we really liked the integrated tray in front of the passenger dash, since it served as an easy place to set and connect a smartphone without digging through the glove box or center console. The top two models also feature Toyota’s new 6.1-inch touch-screen infotainment system, Entune, which features navigation and can sync with most Bluetooth smartphones to utilize services like Pandora, Bing search, and even read e-mails aloud. It won’t won’t blow those away used to luxury appointments, but for the price, this car offers an admirable bang for the interior buck.

But how does it drive? Our day with the car involved following a planned route covering highways, hills, rural routes as well as the city’s downtown, with stops along the way to check out some of San Diego’s breathtaking vistas and green-minded attractions like the local Suzie’s Farm. The Prius C’s smaller four-cylinder, 1.5 liters and 73 horsepower engine, combined with its electric motor tops out at a 99-hp rating and for the most part, it performs like you’d expect.Acceleration, braking, and handling are more than acceptable for the average driver, and struck us as pretty much on par with the subcompact market as a whole. It was fine in stop and go traffic, and even had surprising pep on the highway. Steep hills were often a struggle, but coasting and using the cars regenerative braking system did offer a great opportunity to charge the car’s battery and boost our overall fuel economy. Overall, we wouldn’t say it was fun to drive in the traditional sense, but it wasn’t a marshmallow either. Most importantly, even while pushing the car to the limits, we still achieved a whopping 46 mpg rating.

What did get our competitive juices going, though, was the 3.5-inch Eco display screen mounted in the center of the dash and exclusive to the Prius line. Besides displaying the usual hybrid drive monitor infographic alerting drivers to how the car is being powered, a series of Eco Score screens provide a mountain of stats on how your driving affects fuel economy. Like the ultimate green video game, we found ourselves constantly tweaking our acceleration and braking techniques to maximize our gas mileage. It sounds strange, but it’s addicting, and frankly helped distract our attention away from the usual thrills we seek behind the wheel.

Besides the default driving mode, switching the car to EV mode allows drivers to travel up to 25mph using just the battery. Eco Mode, on the other hand, is designed to increase fuel efficiency by tightly governing climate control, and reducing the immediate response of the throttle for slower acceleration. The latter was a big help for our lead feet and boosted our mph to well above 50 in some cases. For the true data geek, the car will even store information on your 100 best trips in terms of fuel efficiency, helping drivers to nail down the exact technique for squeezing the most mpg’s out of their daily commute and even provide details on fuel costs saved v. a non-hybrid equivalent. That kind of data transparency and clarity is what Hybrid driving should be all about, and Toyota clearly understands it. We only wish there was a way to export or compare your own stats to other drivers out there, because if we can’t be the fastest on the road then by george, we’d like being the most efficient.

As you consider purchasing new ride of your own, it’s important to remember that today’s hybrids aren’t miracle workers and leaving more cash in you wallet while doing right by mother nature does come at a cost of an occasional rush of adrenaline. In the case of the Prius C, though, it’s a fee most city-dwelling drivers are unlikely to miss. Plus, there’s always wing suiting if you really need the rush. We’re pleased to see cars like the Prius C offer hybrid technology with fewer compromises, and look forward to seeing what comes next.

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