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.

The Old Woman Who Took Our Water

I've had very limited experience with the desert since moving to California a year ago, having driven through it a handful of times for one reason or another. To someone like me, rationalizing what a desert is like is nearly impossible without spending some time there. A desert, at least the sort with large rock formations and cacti, is hot.
When you check your car's digital thermometer and see 107 degrees Fahrenheit, you often think of it being unbearable. But it isn't. Without any humidity, much less any wind, it simply feels like just another summer day. What you don't realize is that you're constantly sweating and those beads of perspiration are percolating on your skin almost as quickly as they come out. Without the pools of sweat, it's hard to realize you're dehydrating. We were now on our last leg in Lucerne Valley, a town that borders the Mojave Desert. It's the sort of place that if automotive engineers hadn't already staked their claims into Death Valley, they'd probably use it for evaluating prototype cars. In some places, it's barren, carrying just enough life support in the vicinity to host a few meth labs. And, of course, it has hills -- many, many hills. Switching cars once again, I had the Honda Insight at my disposal now. Buglewicz finished with the Kia Rio, and Arellano drove the Toyota Prius C. With the windows shut in the desert, the heat amplifies. The humidity doesn't escape the car. Instead, it sticks to your body. Air conditioning is the only real relief. "The air conditioning in the Insight sucks," I bemoaned. "That's funny, because the Rio's doing just fine," Keith replied, smugly. "Same here," said Joel. For the sake of parity, all three cars had been kept in their economy modes all day, sacrificing some performance for the sake of efficiency. In the Honda, the climate control goes into an economy mode, too. The Rio and Prius C weren't pushed too hard and therefore could cool down their interiors without struggling.
The Insight had to be overridden, placed into its coolest setting to even have a fighting chance against the mighty Mojave. We drove uphill on Old Woman Springs Road, perhaps the most apt name ever given to a throughway, our cars' engines struggling to keep pace with driver demands and the climate control burdens being placed on their engines.
Already somewhat compromised against two newer designs, the Insight came in with the fewest features. Its engine roared past 4,000 rpm uphill, its continuously variable transmission forcing a wailing drone and a noticeable vibration throughout its interior. Its steering was too numb. Its suspension felt unsorted compared to the Kia's and Toyota's. Mind you, none of the three cars compared are particularly sporty, but even in the mundane task of going straight down a desert two-lane, the Insight's road manners trailed the other two vehicles in the test. While the Rio and even the Prius C managed to shake off some of the bargain-basement subcompact stigma of yore, the Insight reminded us too much of the bad old days, where fuel efficiency took precedence over everything else, including power, interior noise, and basic drivability.
The other two literally and figuratively began pulling away from it.
Driving more than 40 miles, we stopped at a rock formation to take pictures, resting some as we got ready for our last checkpoint. And then, Buglewicz asked about the water. "We're out," came the reply. We had a thirsty few hours ahead of us. We only had a few dry lake beds left to go before heading to dinner, having put some 220 miles on each of the cars already. But stopping for occasional photography is a priority, too.
As we went on, I realized how I couldn't fathom owning a Honda Insight. By the numbers it's a perfectly fine car. It has a well-built, well laid-out interior, a decently sized back seat, and it has the most usable cargo space, too. Yet it lacked featues the other cars had at the same price, but even with them at this price, it still wouldn't have a chance of winning simply because it was such a drag to drive.
With the sun starting its descent and the cars cleverly arranged on a dry lake bed for photography, we knew our three-car comparison had become a surprisingly close two-dog race between the newcomer from Aichi, Japan, and the overachieving hatchback from Seoul. But we had to pick a winner.

The Watering Hole of Victorville

By the time we had reached our final destination of our 270-mile trip, we were starving, dehydrated, and exhausted. The little Mexican cantina we found in Victorville would assuredly provide the pick-me-up we all needed. And it would give us some time to figure out how the cars stacked up against one another. With the Honda out of contention, we had to decide whether we'd give our nod to the Kia Rio or Toyota Prius C. We took "hero" photos of both cars, which means somewhere down in our vault of photos there's a "Dewey Defeats Truman" opp for our second-placer. Because we still hadn't figured out which was the better car come sunset. So we went back to basics. If this were a comparison simply based out of fuel economy, the Kia wouldn't have stood a chance. Through our driving, the Rio's onboard computer said it achieved 35.5 mpg over 270 miles. In reality, it was 32.6, rounding up to its EPA mixed fuel economy rating on the dot. The Toyota Prius C indicated 50.5 mpg over the course of our route and actually hit 50.3 mpg. That's nearly spot-in with its EPA mixed estimate, too. For what it's worth, the Insight split the difference with 44.6 mpg, relegating the Rio to a distant third. But it was never just about fuel economy. This comparison's intent was to combine cost of ownership with joy of ownership; the experience of the vehicle, and whether or not it's something you can come back to day after day and still feel just as happy with it as you did when you drove it off the dealership lot. "Rio. End of discussion," said photographer Jason Davis in our first unofficial tally. Hands down, it was the looker of the three, its sharp lines and slick curves glistening in the desert sun. Indeed, it also had the nicest interior amenities and best materials -- the only one to have soft-touch materials in fact, or a backup camera. Or power-folding mirrors. Or a touchscreen infotainment system. You get the point. But its seats were uncomfortable, and its steering lacked the spot-on feel of the Prius'. In fact, when on-center, the Rio's steering showed an artificial heft to it that counter-intuitively progressed to light and sensitive mid-turn. Engine noise was relatively quiet, due in part because the Rio's more powerful engine didn't have to struggle to pull its weight as much, and it was oftentimes quieter on highway than the Prius or Insight. On highway stretches, however, its lack of sound deadening up front led to noticeably higher levels of wind noise. In addition to all of that, we figured out the Rio's cost of ownership wasn't quite as cheap as it looked on paper. Still, as we quibbled back and forth over burritos, the Kia Rio showed just how far the Korean automaker has come. It's a testament that the Korean automakers really don't build junk anymore. It's a car that, if it had a few minor improvements, I would seriously consider buying with my own money. But it doesn't. And it really only lost this comparison by the narrowest of margins.

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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