As a city dweller, I immediately appreciated the size of the 2012 Toyota Prius C, delivered to the CNET garage in a bright orange color called Habanero. The Prius C is a small hatchback, a little over 13 feet long, with the "C" in the name meaning City.
Through the brighter shade of orange, I could just make out the car's nicely styled body, with a swept-back design toward the rear. The front has the standard Toyota Prius nose bump, complete with blue-tinted badge, marking the car as part of the Prius lineup. The biggest fault of the design is the colossal taillights, which dominate the rear quarters.
The Prius C follows the original Prius and last year's Prius V as part of a very canny strategy to expand the Prius brand. Toyota decided, correctly I think, that the main thing holding back Prius sales was that a midsize hatchback doesn't work for everyone. The Prius V is a solution for those needing a larger car, and the Prius C gives people wanting something smaller an option.
The Prius C is, of course, a hybrid. It uses basically the same hybrid system as the Prius, meaning a gas engine coupled with an electric motor. The system stores braking energy in a nickel metal hydride battery, using it to power the 45-kilowatt electric motor, which can drive the car by itself under low acceleration. The car's gas engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, smaller than the 1.8-liter in the Prius. The combined output of the gas engine and electric motor in the Prius C is 99 horsepower.
Given its smaller size and engine, I would have expected the Prius C to get substantially better fuel economy than the Prius. But its EPA rating comes out to 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. Its bigger brother pulls in 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. Holding the Prius C back is a drag coefficient worse than that of the Prius.
But during my time with the car, the trip computer showed fuel economy consistently over 50 mpg in freeway driving. The realities of driving on a California freeway, with cruising speeds around 65 mph, differ from the EPA's highway test procedure. It seems the little Prius C is optimized for higher speeds. As a result, CNET's car turned in an average of 51.2 mpg after a week's worth of combined city and freeway driving.
There were no surprises in the driving character of the Prius C. Given its 99 horsepower, it did not exactly leap off the line, and took a while to get up to freeway cruising speeds. But it was fast enough to keep up with traffic and make quick lane changes, giving a short burst of speed to take advantage of an opening.
Toyota engineered a reasonably comfortable ride into the Prius C. I found it certainly reflected its price point, not completely insulating me from the outside world. But it was very good for its class. Helping the comfort level were very soft padded seats. At freeway speeds, the car held its ground well enough. Strong winds would likely throw it around some, but no more than other small cars.
The steering showed all the play of a typical American car. Whether in the city or on the freeway, I could jiggle it with little effect on the car's direction. That tuning makes for comfortable cruising, but lacks a sharp, responsive character. No matter, as the Prius C is no sports car. When I turned the wheel at low speeds, the whir of electric boost was obvious. The car also showed a good, tight turning radius, helpful in an urban environment.
Toyota includes both Eco and EV mode buttons, but I found little reason to use them. EV mode tries to maintain electric propulsion, but kicked in the gas engine as soon as I pushed the accelerator appreciably. Eco mode detunes acceleration, supposedly helping me achieve better fuel economy. But I found I could use the accelerator lightly enough on my own.
The Eco Score display contributed much more to any efficient driving on my part. I became obsessed with this little display, sitting to the right of the digital speedometer. Packed into its confines was information on the current battery level, average fuel economy, trip miles, and even the time, but the Eco Score had my full attention.
This 1 to 100 score is based on three data points: starting, cruising, and stopping. I soon found that mastering a good start was easy. Stopping well was difficult, partly due to traffic. The system does not like quick stops, of course, but also gave me low scores for applying the brakes too early, something I did frequently to take advantage of the regeneration.
I never mastered the Eco Score system's cruising metric. It was difficult to figure out what the system considered efficient cruising. In the city, traffic made steady cruising impossible, and the car did not seem to be aware of hills, which necessitated extra accelerator input. My best overall score was a 95, attained while driving a city block with only the start and stop metrics.
CNET's Prius C was in the Three trim, one short of the top, so it came well equipped with cabin electronics. Standard at this trim is a navigation system and Toyota's Entune app integration system, along with features such as a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and a USB port for the stereo.
I previously tested Entune in both the Prius V and the new Camry. In both of those vehicles, the various Entune apps required an undue amount of wait time. But Toyota must have refined Entune since I tested those cars, because it worked satisfyingly quickly in the Prius C. It pulled in gas prices at nearby stations and traffic data, which integrated nicely with the navigation system. Even Bing searches were quicker than I had previously seen.
To access the Entune apps, I had to have Entune running on my iPhone, and the iPhone plugged into the car's USB port. This port is placed relatively conveniently out in the open, on a shelf below the glove box. The head unit incorporates a 6.1-inch touch-screen LCD, which shows apps, navigation, audio, and phone screens. The problem with this LCD is its susceptibility to glare. In any sort of sunlight, it was unreadable.
Another gripe: two different warning screens popped up on the display before I could use Entune, one telling me the system would use my phone's data connection and another warning that I might get charged for overuse of data. For each screen, I had to hit an OK button. Despite using Entune, my phone was well within my monthly data cap.
Toyota could alleviate the glare problem a bit with a white background for the navigation system's maps. The gray looks nice enough, and I liked how street names popped up in labels, but it doesn't matter how it looks if I can't see it. Route guidance was very good with this system, as it showed useful turn graphics on the screen and the audible prompts included street names.