When Toyota’s Prius showed up on our shores in 2000, it was a wedge-shaped, hybrid-powered aberration. Now it’s safe to call it a revolution. A dozen years later, four Prii variants crowd the automaker’s showroom floors, while their Hybrid Synergy Drive powerplants have found room under the hoods of many other models in both the Toyota and Lexus line-ups. When judged by first-quarter auto sales, the Prius family is now the globe’s third best-selling nameplate with nearly a quarter-million units sold, according to Automotive News (just behind two traditionally powered super-sellers, Ford Focus and top dog Toyota Corolla).
The now-ubiquitous - if you live in the eco-conscious Bay Area, as I do - Prius hatchback ($24,000 to $29,805) has paved the way for three recent additions to the fold: the Prius v wagon, Prius Plug-In and Prius c, this last being the economy version of the original four-door, if such a thing doesn’t sound redundant.
The Prius v ($26,550 to $30,140) doesn’t look all that different from the original hatchback, but it somehow manages to offer up 60 percent more cargo room in its slightly stretched rear quarters. To be specific, the v is six inches longer, three inches taller and an inch wider, and its resulting 34 cubic feet of hauling space is meant to signal buyers with family-focused lives - kids, animals and sports gear galore - that they need not go the mini-ute route. The v provides space without much of a dent in Prius hatchback’s vaunted 50 mpg rating, offering a respectable 44 city and 40 highway.
The Prius Plug-In Hybrid ($32,000 to $39,525) offers yet another proposition. For anyone who truly has short commutes as part of their daily routines, here is a Prius that offers up around a dozen miles of gas-free driving thanks to its lithium-ion batteries, and the usual frugal driving experience in non-EV mode. But as its price tag indicates, this super-green iteration of the Prius can, if loaded up, set you back some serious money. That may cause some shoppers to recalculate the entire fuel-saving proposition that all hybrids use as a potent lure.
For this reason alone, the newest Prius c - which stands for city - just might be the purest Prius of the bunch. After four days with a demure blue c, whose price tag alone was reason to smile ($18,950 to $23,230), I came away wondering if my own personal fleet shouldn’t include a no-nonsense, four-door people mover whose gas gauge barely budges. Toyota may brag about offering the best city mileage “of any car without a plug,” but that boast becomes mighty real when you spend a day running errands and the gas gauge refuses to move off F.
To say the c is a no-frills machine is understatement; it makes a loaded Prius Hybrid Plug-In feel like a Bentley. And big hills give the c’s 1.5-liter, 99 hp engine considerable pause; a few times I had to hit the hazards lights to let the BMW behind me know it was going to be a while.
But one has to admire the utter purposefulness of this newest Prius sibling, whose only mission seems to be to ferry folks around town (but not country) without costing the driver a dollar. In fact, the one gauge function I became obsessed with was a readout indicating how much money a trip had cost me from power-up to power-down. Two miles to the kids’ school, 35 cents. Going to pick up a stranded soccer team member, 45 cents. Welcome to the modern age: the car as moving bank ledger. If that’s the way you roll, the Prius family should meet yours.