BY GERRY MILES
Officially, the C in the Prius’ name stands for “city” where the smallest and most affordable aka cheapest edition of Toyota’s famed hybrid car line will provide the most dividends. Perhaps, though, it should be an “e” for economy to get an EPA-rated 50 combined mpg is the prime factor folks will buy one.
As the runt of the four-model Prius litter, the C is also the smallest and the least expensive ($19,080) or cheap, but the C could also stand for the compromises needed to achieve the feat in this subcompact.
Compared to its larger midsized Prius – the only car introduced at the NY Auto Show where a hall full of auto journos in 1997 actually went silent to hear its intro price $19,995 – the C is 19.1 inches shorter (157.3 vs. 176.4 inches) and 542 pounds lighter (2,500 lbs. vs. 3,042 lbs.) to achieve its fuel efficiency.
That diet helps boost the fuel economy but it compromises the C in several other ways: the seats are supportive but relatively thin and best for short, city commutes and not visiting Aunt Bessie in Philadelphia; there’s a lot of plastic on the dash – the better to save weight with, and those hoping for a responsive time behind the wheel are shopping for the wrong car.
Bathed in 2014’s newest color – a retina-searing yellow called Sun Fusion – the C shows off a funky, wind-cheating style so common on many smaller cars today. It’ll appeal to the younger groups but still provides reasonable room up front.
The overall interior is clean, simple, and uncomplicated except for the number of options displayed on the information screen. The main dash features are centered, electronic and display a myriad of the car’s functions as well as tracking your prudent pedal pushing with each trip. However most controls are touch screen with only the temperature as the largest knob and the other climate controls as small buttons.
There’s plenty of leg and headroom up front, less so as expected in the back. The wind-cheating wedged-shape of today’s cars leaves little cargo or head space for adults in the back. Although the hatch opens wide, remember this is a subcompact built to sip gas and not perform weekend duty as a cargo mule.
A spare tire is included, housed under a two-piece large foam-like structure underneath a trunk mat that comes with the carpeted floor mats ($225) and a cargo net ($49). I wonder if the spare will be eliminated, as it has been in most cars these days, for an additional battery pack.
Power tops out at 99 horsepower with the 1.5-liter DOHC that boasts variable valve timing – just like Toyota’s Yaris – but produces just 73 hp compared to the 106 hp in the Yaris. The Hybrid Drive is tucked into the engine well while the battery is optimally placed under the left rear seat for weight distribution.
Output can be regulated in three modes: Eco, Normal and EV. To use the EV or battery mode, the shifter slides next to a large “B” however this mode requires one to drive under 25 mph for less than a mile.
Under way, the C is, as a certain coach is known to say, is what it is: an economy car that’s not meant to leave rubber from its 15-inch wheels behind. Even during city commutes the C’s motor protested too much when pressed for additional power before responding. At highway speeds the noise ratio rose, as did the wind noise and road noise. Passing a car becomes a planned event requiring time and distance. Merging onto the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover, N.H. was a tad frightening waiting for the automatic CVT trying to accumulate enough speed to stake out some pavement in the right lane before the oncoming traffic rushed upon the sawed off hatch’s backside.
Tradeoffs and piercing colors fade when your normal days to fill up are passed as the tank gauges shows plenty of petrol to keep motoring. When you can get 51 mpg, the C almost makes you want to slow down, watch the dashboard gas numbers rise, switch into Eco and be as stingy as Silas Marner.
Its diminutive size makes it easy to park in the city. Handling is somewhat light despite the thick steering wheel that’s meant to imply sturdiness and sportiness. Braking is reasonable, not that you’ll go that fast, and returns power to the battery in its regenerative form, as shown on the dash’s display.
At a time when gas prices are still fluctuating, the C offers an entry-level price into the hybrid market from the famed Prius lineup. Going green usually costs about $5,000 more green backs than a conventional model in many car lines. One has to consider if it’s mainly city stop-and-go driving where the benefit will be realized or not. A $5,000 hybrid tag can purchase more than 1,400 gallons of gas figured at $3.50 per gallon and provide a smaller monthly payment.
In comparison, the Yaris has nearly the same footprint as the C, more horsepower, a smaller suggested price that’s about $5,000 less and still owns EPA numbers in the 30s. It’s nice to have options.
The Prius C meets its mission as an affordable, non plug-in hybrid from the first family of hybrid technology. For a city commuter looking to max out the mileage and not the payment at the pump, the C is worth a look and a test drive.
2014 Toyota Prius C Three
Price, base (with destination): $21,765 ($810)
As Tested: $23,318
Fuel economy: 53-mpg city/46-mpg highway.
Globe observed: 51.0 mpg
Drivetrain: 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder, Hybrid Synergy Drive, Automatic CVT
Body: Four-door hatch
Horsepower: 73 hp
Torque: 82 lb-ft @ 1,850 rpm
Overall length: 157.3 inches.
Wheelbase: 100.4 inches.
Height: 56.9 inches
Width: 66.7 inches.
Curb weight: 2,500 lbs.
Not stopping at gas stations. Fuel economy. Rear hatch, folding seat augments cargo space. Spare tire.
Awful color, dash gauges too busy, thin seats.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A non-plugin hybrid that meets its mission of providing superb economy for city commuters.
Also consider: Toyota Yaris, Scion iQ, Ford C-Max Energi, Honda CR-Z, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2