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July 24, 2012 > Auto Review: Toyota Prius C

Auto Review: Toyota Prius C

Does 'C' stand for cute or cheap?

By Steve Schaefer

The Toyota Prius, the world's most successful hybrid, is now a family of four models. Not only is there the "regular" Prius, subtitled the Liftback, but there's the Prius V, a larger wagon style model and an electric plug-in version of the Liftback. It's the first Prius you can charge, delivering up to 13 miles of completely fuel-free motoring.

Filling out the Prius roster is the new Prius C. It brings gas/electric power to the masses, slotting in below the Liftback in both size and price. Its 1.5-liter engine is smaller than the other Prii's 1.8 liter, but the principle is the same - a gas engine part of the time supplemented by an electric motor for maximum fuel economy. As with other Prii, you find yourself using gas on the freeway, but often battery power alone on surface streets. The car shuts off at traffic lights.

It averages 50 miles per gallon per the EPA - 53 in town and 46 on the highway. I achieved 47.3 mpg - still about as good as it gets short of a pure electric. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide awards the Prius C an 8 for Air Pollution and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas, putting it in the SmartWay Elite category, a high distinction. The only thing cleaner is a soapbox derby car.

Numerous screens on the dash provide a wealth of information about your fuel economy in charts, graphs and lists. Just push the buttons on the steering wheel and it's all before you. See average speed, drive time, cruising range, outside temperature, and things only a Prius could offer, such as percent of the time the car runs on pure electricity. There's even something called the Eco Score, which is based on a perfect score of 100. I scored in the high 60's.

There's the same flow diagram that's been a part of Prius dashboards since the beginning, but it's reduced in scale. It graphically represents where the energy to run the car is coming from - the gas engine, electric motor or the battery - or any combination. You can see when the battery is being charged. It's so fascinating that you have to be careful not to lose your focus on the road ahead. As in other Prii, you can learn to drive more efficiently by paying attention to the numbers.

The thing is, despite its fuel-saving mission, this car is nice to live with on a day-to-day basis. Inside, surfaces have the multiple textures that other Prii have. It used to be that all plastic in cars tried to replicate leather or pigskin. Now, it could be rice paper or a kind of wavy line pattern. It's light gray and charcoal here, with some fanciful rolling gridwork that makes the surfaces pulse organically. A blue trim line tones in with the blue plastic motif on the floor shift lever of the automatic - the same plastic insert as found on the big Prii.

The car is about 19 inches shorter than a Liftback, and I know because I parked next to one - but it doesn't feel shortchanged inside. There is real rear seat room for a full-sized person back there, and adequate headroom, too.

The Prius C comes in four levels. Level one gets a surprisingly high level of standard fare, including full climate control, a multi-information display and AM/FM/CD with Bluetooth. Level two throws in cruise control, split rear seats and a rear cargo cover. Level three adds a smart key - a real upscale feeling item - and upgrades the screen interface. My level three test car came in Habanero - a friendly and comment-inducing shade of orange. Want alloy wheels? That's level four - with artificial leather covered heated front seats.

Prices start at $19,710 - including shipping - for the level one. The level four tops out, without any options, at $23,990. So, it gives you lots of choices before you even touch the Liftback, which starts at $24,760.

With 1.5 liters of engine putting out just 73 horsepower, and a combined horsepower rating of 99, including the electric motor, performance is not exciting. With just me in the car, it was a competent hauler on streets and freeways - quiet and smooth. And with nearly 50 miles per gallon, it's cheap to run.

This is a cheerful, easy-to-like little car. The small dash screen greets you with a cute Prius C image zooming by and says goodbye when you turn it off. It should make the Prius an even stronger brand - and make it a purchase option for young, first-time buyers.

The Toyota Prius is now the third-top-selling nameplate in the world, after the Toyota Camry and the Ford Focus. Being a family of cars certainly helps.

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