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Comparison Test: Hatchback Hypermilers in the Desert Sun

2012 Toyota Prius C vs. 2012 Honda Insight vs. 2012 Kia Rio 5-door

By Jacob Brown | Photos By Jason Davis | September 18, 2012
Is there any more water?" These are not the words you want to hear your boss say at 2 in the afternoon when it's 107 degrees out and you're a little west of the middle of Nowhere. We were halfway through a 16-hour trip, comparing three different manufacturers' takes on the best way to conserve fuel. Yet somehow, we'd managed to only bring along eight bottles of water to divide among the five of us. Halfway through the trip, they were as dry as the surrounding desert. But that was a far cry from how we started our day, a day that we thought would be as easy as just running three economy cars through the ringer and finding out which one we'd like to take home. It didn't quite turn out that way.

Rallying the Troops

That morning, we met at a gas station in Lake Forest, our first checkpoint, somewhat sleep-deprived but eager to start our day. Our task was to evaluate three commuter cars, each costing less than $20,000, to see not just which was the best car for the job, but also which one we'd actually want to own. This being the 21st Century, two of the contestants were hybrids: the recently refreshed 2012 Honda Insight, and the all-new 2012 Toyota Prius C Two, a newcomer that's tearing up sales charts month after month despite the slowing popularity of most other hybrids.
The third was the 2012 Kia Rio EX 5-door, and you might consider it our "control" in this experiment. Unlike the other two, it's a conventional take on an inexpensive car, with no hybrid technology, just a highly fuel efficient gasoline engine. Still, its 40 mpg highway score was pretty close to the Honda's 44 mpg, and even the Toyota's 46 mpg. But at 30 mpg in the city, it fell farther back versus the 40-mpg city rating for the Insight, and well behind the 53-mpg of the Prius C. However, the Kia's ace in the hole was its price, which undercut both hybrids by at least a couple thousand dollars. On paper, it'd be easy to just look at fuel economy numbers and pick a winner. But there's more to it than that. In addition to cost of ownership -- which we're defining as monthly finance payment plus fuel costs -- there's joy of ownership, that is, which car would we most like to drive every day? That, it turns out, would be the deciding factor. After filling up each car, grabbing coffee and other assorted caffeinated beverages, and loading all our gear, plus photographer Jason Davis and associate editor Trevor Dorchies, into our 2012 Ford Explorer, we set off on our adventure. Next checkpoint: the northbound Interstate 5 to Los Angeles, with the objective of sitting in morning commute traffic, sharing the road with hostile drivers, and seeing which car would least drive us crazy amid the inevitable stop and go yo-yoing.

Home Depot Run

"Forty-six point two!" How could that be, I wondered, as I drove the Kia Rio at a steady 60 mph with its Eco mode and cruise control both on. My fuel economy stretched well beyond the EPA's rating. I chimed in with the reading over the walkie-talkies. And then again at 46.3. And 46.4. And, finally, 46.5 mpg.
In the Insight, fellow associate editor Joel Arellano touched over 50 mpg. And bossman Keith Buglewicz killed our buzz with the Prius: a remarkable 62 mpg. We left Lake Forest at 6:30 a.m., anticipating a heavy dose of traffic on our way north to Los Angeles. But in the most unanticipated backfire of the day -- aside from the water -- traffic was clear. We slipped through the air, achieving fuel economy stats so suspect they'd be worthy of mentioning in the Mitchell Report. So that didn't help our real-world testing procedure. We also had another problem. "Anyone seen Trevor and Jason lately?" asked fearless leader Buglewicz. "They were right behind us," replied Arellano. And they were up until we hopped on I-5. "I'll call them." Some minutes later, Arellano started back up, "They said they're near Disneyland." "How did you call them?" I asked. "Your car doesn't have Bluetooth." In fact, the Honda Insight, $19,290 including $790 for destination and handling, was the only one of our three hatchbacks that didn't have Bluetooth hands-free calling. Out of respect for Joel's law-abiding nature, we'll assume he just used speakerphone. The trio of hatchbacks pulled off the highway to the nearest Home Depot, and we waited until Trevor Dorchies and photographer Jason Davis pulled into the lot in the brown Ford. From the lot, we could see the traffic congealing, at last giving us exactly what we wanted.

$4.35 for a Bottle of Juice

We strolled into L.A.'s art district sometime around 8 a.m., our fuel economies somewhat diminished in the now-bustling traffic. The Rio saw the most damage on the last 25 miles into town, now hovering around 38 mpg on average. Its new-for-2013 idle stop and go system, which turns off the engine while the car is stopped, likely would have mitigated that some. It's a $400 option, only available on the mid-level EX.
The Prius stayed just under 60 mpg and began climbing again once we hit Fourth St. in Los Angeles. You know the place; anytime you've seen a car going over a long stretch bridge in a car commercial or seen an explosion in a Michael Bay movie, that's the general location. The art district, once a dilapidated afterthought in Los Angeles' bygone industry, undertook a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s after big industry moved to cheaper places. In what was once called the Warehouse District, lofts grew from factories; coffee shops emerged from shipping facilities. Red brick donned street art -- graffiti, if you will -- and it was encouraged. One of the most downtrodden places in downtown Los Angeles became one of the most sought after for the upwardly mobile bohemian set. Which is why a bottle of juice there costs $4.35. Our first checkpoint once we got our photography done was a coffee shop featuring all sorts of morbid artwork called Groundwork that we reached after discovering our first two stops were still closed. Over some Fair Trade organic coffee and Odwalla juices, we talked about the cars. Having driven the Kia Rio in first, I couldn't help but be impressed by its features and style. But its driver seat was among the most uncomfortable I've used in recent memory. Arellano was lukewarm on the Honda all around, citing its numb, overly sensitive steering, lack of features, and blindspot-inducing rear window as potential problems. It didn't help the Insight lacked cruise control, too, a feature not available until you opt up for the $21,065 Insight LX. It begged the question: How could Honda build a car designed essentially for sipping fuel through a straw, yet fail to make cruise control standard? As for the Toyota? Let's say this first: 62 mpg. That number was simply incredible. Moreover, the Toyota was proving to be a nimble companion, maneuvering L.A.'s sometimes narrow backstreets ad it it were designed around them. And better still, it didn't feel nearly as pokey as its 99-horsepower rating suggests. Color us pleasantly surprised.

Our Big Adventure

In L.A., we swapped keys before setting out on our second leg -- I took the Toyota Prius C, Arellano took the Kia Rio, and Buglewicz led the pack with the Honda Insight. Already having driven 50 miles, we embarked on our second leg, 135 miles east to Cabazon, a town of just 2,500 residents. The journey was non-eventful, excepting our incessant banter of fuel economy. The boss later ordered radio silence after Joel and I had continued mentioning on every tenth of a mile per gallon. He claimed it was to preserve battery life in our radios. Then we got to our second checkpoint for lunch, a local burger chain called Ruby's Diner. "These parking spots are huge," I remarked, thinking to myself this must've been something of a Texas-like town in California, filled with giant pickups. "You realize you're parked in a camper spot," Keith replied. "Oh." Of course. Besides discussing the history of how the Ruby's mascot's dress became a little longer and more politically correct in more recent logo images, we started discussing where we wanted to go next. Comparison In Cabazon Everyone on our staff grew up with Pee-Wee Herman and his Big Adventure, some of us catching it in theaters while others of us seeing it a little later. But when we had gotten to see the dinosaurs featured in that movie, we all melted at their larger-than-life sight in the middle of the California desert. Or was it all because of the 100-degree heat? Davis soldiered through the heat with his camera while we took shelter under the Explorer's liftgate, drinking through our case of bottled water. We started tweeting, Facebook-checking, and becoming nostalgic. Nobody noticed that we only had four bottles of water left. After departing the dinosaur park, we drove to San Gorgonio Wind Farm, a field of 3,218 windmills, each standing 160 feet high and generating enough electricity to power 130,000 homes over the course of a year. One windmill is enough to annually fill both the batteries of the Insight and Prius C 175,000 times over. But, alas, neither hybrid plugs into anything except a gas pump. The Toyota Prius C uses its 0.9 kilowatt-hour battery pack that can independently power the car's electric motor for short distances, or work in conjunction with its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine for a maximum net 99 horsepower. Its onboard computers seamlessly mitigate which one does what at any given time, whether powering the car or charging up its battery for added boost. With both the Prius C and the Honda Insight, brakes do part of the charging duties, too. Unlike the Prius C, the Honda Insight's gasoline engine is on and working as long as the wheels are turning, but it's smaller and less powerful than that of the Toyota. The electric motor is smaller too, and with a 0.6 kilowatt-hour battery pack onboard, it doesn't carry enough electricity to independently power the car at any given time, even if it could. Think of it more as an electric supercharger, adding a little bit of torque to the car's 1.3-liter gasoline-powered four-cylinder. Combined, the hybrid powertrain makes 98 horsepower, which isn't much for a 2,747-pound car. But its more ample 123 pound-feet of torque helps with thrust, the force that gets the car moving in the first place. As for the Rio, Kia doesn't have any hybrid powertrain bits in its subcompact. Instead, it relies on a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower and can distribute fuel to each cylinder with more precision thanks to an advanced fuel injection technology called direct injection. Coupled to its conventional six-speed automatic -- the other two cars use continuously variable automatics that can adjust gearing infinitely between two fixed ratios to optimize fuel economy or power -- it can achieve class-leading fuel economy for a non-hybrid. Where we were going next, we'd need it.
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