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 Joy in Owning a Prius?

We didn't land on our conclusion to put the Prius in the one spot at the Mexican restaurant, and when it came time for deliberations, we didn't take the process lightly. Even if we were only comparing three subcompact hatchbacks.
After an additional half a day of debate following our 270-mile route and 90-mile loop on the way back, we finally stuck to a firm conclusion with the Toyota Prius C taking the win. It was initially a decision fraught with cognitive dissonance, however. Toyotas are oftentimes seen as safe, reliable, comfortable, and efficient. In terms of a commitment, they're like the ones you marry because you want a safety net; because they're as much a sure thing as that dinner you expect every night on the table at 6 p.m. when you get home from work. But with very few exceptions, Toyotas are not the ones you get wide-eyed over every time you see them, especially any sort of Prius model. A Prius is a car that says "I've lost all passion for living, but I sure am sensible."
The Toyota Prius C is surprisingly different. Even with a modest 99 horsepower, it doesn't feel much pokier than the Rio, mainly because of the torque stemming from its electric motor. And even with no soft touch interior materials, it feels like a better-built product than the Kia, if only slightly.
It lacks the creature comforts of the Rio, which are all optional on the Prius C Three that starts at a less sensible $22,395, but those somehow don't matter as much when you live with the car on a longer basis. I spent the weekend with the Prius, nitpicking its every detail. Its cupholders are too small and inconveniently located. Its glove compartment is too small. And even though on-paper it has the largest cargo hold of the three cars, it was actually less usable than the Honda's or Kia's.
But its electric power steering had a heft to it and felt controlled. It felt more linear and natural than the Rio's. In fact, Kia would do well to study how it as an example of how to do electric power steering properly. Its brakes exhibited little of the numb oversensitivity found in other Prii. In its own way, the Prius C was remarkably fun to drive. But with a 50-mpg average during our time with it, it was as efficient as you'd expect a Prius to be.
So there you have it. With its smaller, Yaris-based Prius C, Toyota has made a car that feels remarkably unlike a Prius in the way it feels and drives. But it still seamlessly implements the wholesome goodness of remarkable fuel economy and high-tech hybrid integration only Toyota seems to know how do right. It doesn't feel like a Toyota Prius. And guess what? It's better because of it.

Epilogue: When $20,660 is more affordable than $18,345

Americans don't think about a car's final price in most cases; we think about how much our car payment is going to be. When looking at the numbers behind these three cars, we discover they're all a lot more evenly matched than their initial $2,315 price spread would suggest.
To illustrate this, we lined up the three hatchbacks we compared based on their list prices and without any applicable taxes, as those can vary greatly across the nation. We assumed a buyer would purchase a car with a 20-percent down payment and 7 percent interest per month. This is what we were stuck with:
  Honda Insight Kia Rio EX Toyota Prius C Two
List Price $19,290 $18,345 $20,660
20% Down Payment $3,858 $3,669 $4,132
Mo. Pmt. @ 7% APR $275.21 $261.73 $294.75
Monthly Fuel Cost $104.17 $132.58 $87.50
Total Monthly Cost $379.38 $394.31 $382.25
The Toyota's down payment is about $460 higher than the Kia, which doesn't bode well for the test's most expensive car; the Honda splits the difference between the two. But the monthly payment gives the Rio a much narrower lead over the Prius, just $33. To manage that, just cook three additional meals at home instead of eating out. No big deal. But that's just to keep the car on your driveway. To keep it running, we start to see the numbers skew a bit. Assuming a yearly fuel cost average of $3.50 per gallon and driving 15,000 miles per year, the Prius' greater fuel efficiency makes up significant ground, assuming that, like our cars, it achieves close to the EPA mixed fuel economy rating. These cars are tuned pretty optimally to achieve their projected numbers if driven like they're economy cars instead of Ferraris. Assuming a 33-mpg average, the Rio will cost $132.58 per month, the Insight will cost $104.17, and the Prius will undercut both of them significantly at just $87.50. When you add up the monthly payment plus the monthly fuel cost, and the Honda Insight finishes as the most affordable by a little under $3 versus the Prius. But as much of a safe bet it is to own, we wouldn't recommend to anyone concerned with joy of ownership. So we feel better recommending the Rio despite its higher monthly operating cost. But more so, we're inclined to say get the most expensive car here because it's actually cheaper to own. Funny how that works sometimes.
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