The 2012 Toyota Prius C appeared in our driveway one recent Wednesday afternoon. It was as though our regular Prius, parked in front, had lain a little robin's blue egg. Sitting there in all its Generation Z-targeted aquamarine glory, the subcompact C was just so cute, looking like a Beetle that had gone through a stretching machine for a few minutes. The car of the future had arrived, and it was damn tiny.
Inside, the C didn't boast a lot of fixings. The seats were blue-and-black vinyl, hot to the touch. It had a curiously-placed, low-tech gearshift that was hard to reach if you pushed your seat too far up, not a lot of storage, and about as much backseat as an underwear model. This was a budget car for sure.
Contemporary cars, at all price levels, try too hard to be mobile living rooms, with reclining leather seats and high-def amenities. They're a gas fireplace short of a Boca timeshare. But that's an illusion that the Prius C breaks. It's a time- and money-saving conveyance, a hybrid toaster oven. I'm not objective about the Prius: I truly believe that the first generation was the Model A of our time, a revolutionary, magical car that changed the way we think about fuel efficiency. If that's the case, then the Prius C is the Model T, the car that takes hybrid driving out of NPR yuppie plaything status and brings it to the urban masses. It's the first apartment of hybrid cars.
The Prius C doesn't go fast. Its hybrid engine only offers 99 hp. Over the week it came into our lives, my wife and I took it on the highway many times, and we often struggled to get to 70 mph. There was a lot of right-lane driving. It's harder to make the C glide than the regular Prius, so the brand's legendary fuel economy doesn't quite hold up on long-haul trips. Toyota promises 46 mpg on the highway, but we could never get it up over 43, and we took it on drives as long as 150 miles.
On the other hand, the C is an absolute revelation for city driving. We live in Austin, Texas, a town that's growing faster than a McDonald's All-American. The streets are clogged with large cars and drivers who haven't yet figured out that Austin's era of open roads and open beers is long gone. It's tough sledding out there. But I've not encountered a better city-driving car than the Prius C.
Because of its size, the C maneuvers through crowded traffic without feeling dangerous. It has efficient brakes and nimble enough steering. Parking it is unbelievably easy. Most importantly, it displays almost mind-boggling urban fuel economy. The hybrid motor is perfect for stop-and-start traffic. Toyota estimates a city mpg of 53 for the C, but that seems a little low to me. I took one five-mile trip from my house to the gym where I averaged 56, and another, longer one to meet a friend for a drink across town where I got almost 65.
This happened time and again. We put well over 300 miles on the C and burned only four gallons of gas. In all, driving it for a week cost us less than $15. To me, that's an acceptable tradeoff for driving what feels, at times, like a wind-up toy. I like luxury and horsepower as much as the next guy, but I also long to live in a safer, saner less-crowded driving world. The Prius C is an evolutionary step in that direction.
One morning toward the end of our week with the Prius C, I was sitting at my desk doing some very important work when my wife exploded through the front door. She'd used the Prius C to take our son to school and to run some errands.
"I really gotta pee," she said.
"OK," I said.
"Also," she said, "there's an injured possum in the trunk of the Prius."
I didn't look up.
"What?" I said.
A convoluted story followed, but the essence was that a possum had been hit by a car and a woman had found it stumbling around her yard. My wife has a big heart for animals, and she agreed to take it to a wildlife rescue center. She needed me to look up the address.
"I've got to go now, or it's gonna die," she said.
"OK," I said.
"Do you want to see it?"
The Prius C doesn't have a lot of trunk space, but it's got enough to hold a wounded possum in a plastic tub. Regina drove the possum to the wildlife center. She got there, she says, "pretty darn fast," and she also didn't burn a lot of gas in the process. The possum's legs were working, the center told Regina, but he'd suffered some head trauma.
"The poor thing," she said later. "He was making little whimpering noises the whole way down."
We later found out they put down the possum a few hours later. But it wasn't the Prius C's fault. It had done its job well.
2012 TOYOTA PRIUS C SPECIFICATIONS
1.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid
Continuously variable automatic
53 mpg city/46 mpg highway
2.9 tons CO2/year
$18,950 - $23,230
Cute design, incredible fuel economy, high-end possum rescuing technology.
Not a lot of power, low-frills interior.