Twelve years ago, when Toyota introduced the first Prius hybrid to America with a 41 mpg combined mileage, gasoline ran $1.59 a gallon. Today it's over $4, with prices predicted to reach $5 per gallon by Memorial Day. If ever there was a time to introduce a smartly styled subcompact hybrid with terrific gas mileage, it’s now.
Toyota knows how to design, engineer and build hybrids; they invented the category and over one million Prius have been sold in the U.S. since its introduction. The new Prius C (which Toyota spells with a lowercase letter) is a 5-door hatchback subcompact sedan with a combined EPA rating of 50 mpg and a starting price of $18,950.
This is a car for young families and those who think young. The exterior design is a cousin to the now iconic shape that defines a Prius. The new subcompact is sleek from the front to the slopping rear hatch with sculpted flares, the side mirrors have special fins and the wheels a special shape to enhance the vehicles aerodynamics.
Opening the driver’s door reveals a 21st century interior loaded with technological innovations, information and infotainment features. The thin, wide instrument panel and arrangement of displays and controls are in light colors to contrast with a basic black. It’s ultramodern looking, especially the digital display screen. The quiet air conditioning system contains an air filter to remove pollen, dust and other airborne allergens. Naturally there are the USB ports, electric connections and special storage areas for other electronic devices and smart phones. The new C is loaded with special on-board programs that analyze data from the operation of the car and calculates esoteric information such as cost per trip.
For a small sedan, seating in the C is comfortable with good back support and more leg room than expected for driver and front seat passenger. The rear seats are comfortable but lack room for those with long legs.
I test drove the C near Del Ray Beach, Fla., midway between Miami and Palm Beach — which means it’s part of the infamous southern Florida traffic jams and home track to some of the worst drivers anywhere. In every driving situation the little Prius was agile, maintaining its pace among the bigger cars. Steering was accurate in straight road and simple turns – no rolling curves or hills in southern Florida. Braking was responsive and efficient and is a component of the hybrid’s electrical regeneration system. Drivers can switch between three driving modes, Normal, ECO and EV, that best suit one’s style.
The C features a 1.5 liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine linked to two high output electric motors. A 144-volt nickel-metal hydride battery stores energy regained while driving; the 67-lb. pack is mounted near the center of the car to improve dynamics.
Toyota is keeping the selection process simple with four levels of options for the C, with the base model starting at $18,950 and rising to $23,230 for the Prius C Four. Those are higher prices than its direct competitors — cars like the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic — but the Prius C’s fuel economy means the gap closes markedly, depending on how many years of $4-a-gallon gas one expects to drive through.
Toyota’s first Prius Hybrids were considered by some to be a science experiment, but Prius-es (Prii in Toyota marketing speak) are now accepted as a viable market choice by those who want exceptional gas mileage and can stomach the initial price difference. It’s not for everyone, but with the C Toyota has created a smaller car packed with technology, good handling and a comfortable interior while delivering the kind of mileage gains that’s turned thousands of buyers into Prius owners.