2012 Toyota Prius C First Drive

Affordable Hybrid for the Connected Masses

What It Is/ Who It's For

The 2012 Toyota Prius c is aimed to satisfy the desire of Gen Y -- or Millenials -- for a highly fuel-efficient, smartphone-connected, stylish vehicle costing less than $20,000.

Best Thing

Doesn't feel like you're driving a hybrid vehicle.

Worst Thing

The noisy continuously variable transmission, when revving, may surprise buyers not familiar with them.

Snap Judgment

The 2012 Toyota Prius c matches the competition feature to feature, then passes them all with its combined 50 mpg thanks to its hybrid heritage.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Introduction

Toyota debuted the Toyota Prius c concept at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, saying it would be the least expensive Prius, if not hybrid, on the market. Forward twelve months and the automaker introduced the production version at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show.

We selected the 2012 Toyota Prius c as a Stud in our Studs and Duds checklist based partly on its styling -- which we actually found attractive -- but mainly because of the promised fuel economy of 50 mpg for less than $19,000. Until now, the titular head of Least Expensive Hybrid has been the Honda Insight, which has boasted at best mixed reviews. We were especially eager to see how the Prius c drove. Was it an unrefined econo-box? A cruiser and snoozer? Or something entirely differently? We spent a day driving around sunny La Jolla, California, in several models to find out.

Speaking of models, the 2012 Toyota Prius c is broken down into four models, following the Prius brand's peculiar One, Two, Three, and Four naming convention. Adding the $760 destination fee, the base 2012 Toyota Prius c One starts at $19,710; the Prius c Two adds cruise control and 60/40 split fold-down rear seat for the total price tag of $20,660; the Prius c Three adds multi-media options like Toyota's interactive Entune system and steering wheel controls at $22,395; and the 2012 Toyota Prius c Four gets larger wheels (16-inch) and more comfortable seat covers for a grand total of $23,990.

Walkaround

The 2012 Toyota Prius c is a stylistic evolution from the now-familiar egg-shaped Toyota Prius. It sports a more youthful design, especially when looked from the side and front, resembling the similar but non-hybrid Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, and Mazda2. From some angles, the Prius c actually looks longer than its erstwhile parent, though it's actually more than a foot and half shorter and an inch lower than the standard Prius, roughly the size of Toyota's entry-level Yaris. It's when you look at the rear of the Toyota Prius c do you see the family resemblance, specifically the vertical rear lamps. My driving partner found the Toyota Prius c attractive; personally, we found the design contemporary enough that Millenials won't dismiss it based on looks alone.

Sitting Down

Before we continue, a caveat here: All the vehicles we drove were pre-production models, that is, they were prototypes and may not completely reflect what will wind up in dealerships when the 2012 Toyota Prius c goes on sale in mid-March this year.

On that note, we found a lot to like inside the 2012 Toyota Prius c. Toyota, at least with the Prius c, is moving away from the utilitarian "gray-on-gray-on-gray" look found in the standard Prius hatchback and the even larger Prius v. Yes, there we found hard plastics everywhere inside the Prius c, but they're at least competitive with the rest of this segment. Toyota used contrasting colors on the seat coverings, dash, and the rest of Prius c's interior to give it a contemporary look like the heavily refreshed 2012 Toyota Camry though found little difference in the various models. Actually, we preferred the base Toyota Prius c One interior: as my fellow driver said, the Prius c Four's passenger side dash design looked like a someone had cut the plastic with a razor blade.

Speaking of those seats, we found the Prius c seats, from the standard cloth covering to the faux leatherette "SofTex" in the Four, to be comfortably firm, wide, and just cushioned enough to be supportive. (Pay attention, Kia). Tilt/telescoping steering wheel, found on the Prius Two, and various manual seat controls make it easy to find the most comfortable position.

The biggest shift, literally, is the placement of the Toyota Prius c's transmission shifter. Until now, Toyota has placed all Prius shifters up on the dash. For the Prius c, Toyota has moved the shifter to the floor, like most other vehicles on the road. Toyota reps told us they were trying to make the c as much of a standard car as much as possible, and it's a change we think should make its way through the entire Prius lineup.

The front row of the Toyota Prius c had plenty of utility. Both the driver and front passenger seat get two shallow cupholders, side pockets in the inner door to hold water bottles, and trays all over the dash to store coins, pencils, and other knickknacks. We especially like the large alcove right above the glove compartment where you can throw your smartphone in after plugging it into the infotainment system. And speaking of the glove compartment; the one in the Toyota Prius c is huge for this segment. This makes up for the storage unit between driver and front passenger, which we found almost insultingly small.

It's the second row where you notice where Toyota cut size out of the Prius c. On the one hand, there's a good amount of space in the back row for two adults to sit comfortably or three if they're very, very slim. However, they'll have virtually no amenities: No door pockets or bottle holders; no sleeves on the back of the front seats; and only one cupholder between the two of them. The back row seats do fold flat easily, expanding the 17 cubic-feet of cargo space -- enough for a couple of large duffle bags -- to an impressive 87 cubic feet. Note the 60/40 split back row seats are only available in the Toyota Prius c Two, Three, and Four models; the One's rear row folds in a single piece.

Driving

Toyota raised more than a few eyebrows during the introductory presentation when representatives said they saw 2012 Toyota Prius c competing against the all-new Ford Fiesta and Mazda2, both considered sporty vehicles in the compact/subcompact field. The words "sporty," "Toyota," and "hybrid" rarely go together. But their words made sense during several trips around the San Diego/La Jolla area.

Both our 2012 Toyota Prius c models One and Four felt low and planted to the road, giving the illusion the hatchback is actually heavier than it is. (The Prius c is actually 19 percent lighter than the larger, standard Prius.) Toyota says that's due to the placement of the Prius c's batteries which are located underneath the back row seats. Such a sensation gave us the confidence to hit the road harder than usual, especially the curves. Such a feeling was further enhanced with the stiff, all-electric steering which we still found quite responsive either on the road at high speed or looking for space in the parking lot. Adding to that confidence were the Toyota Prius c's regenerative brakes which felt absolutely normal, with none of that mushy, slightly staccato feel found in most hybrid vehicles.

Speaking of stiff, we found the 2012 Toyota Prius c's suspension to be quite stiff, almost sporty, more similar to the Fiesta and Maza2 than, let's say, a Hyundai Accent. You could feel the road imperfections like bumps, cracks, and pits as the Prius c thunked over them. Our Toyota Prius c One came standard with 15-inch wheels while the Four model was equipped with 16-inch tires; we noted no discernable difference between the two.

Alas, the sporty ride was not backed by the Prius c's powertrain. The 2012 Toyota Prius c is primarily a cruiser, not some potential pocket rocket. The Prius c's four-cylinder and electric motor generates a combined 99 horsepower which we found decent enough tooling around the streets of La Jolla and downtown San Diego, but passing other vehicles required some thought. This was especially true when going up an incline or hill, or making a pass at freeway speed. The Prius c's continuously variable transmission caused the engine to buzz loudly when accelerating -- a surprise given Toyota's reputation of "quiet" interiors -- but we didn't think it was a deal breaker. Otherwise, road and wind noise are well controlled.

All 2012 Toyota Prius c come with a digital display monitor centrally located atop the dash, instead of in front of the driver. Nicely protected from the sun's glare, it shows transmission status and battery information, as well as the Prius c's ECO score. This shows how much fuel your driving is saving you, gallon-wise, compared to a select target like another vehicle, family members or friends who drive the c, or even yourself. We were more focused on seeing how the Prius c drove than its fuel savings, but we achieved a figure in the low forties during our trips. One reporter, though, hypermiled his Prius c into the low seventies.

Summary

As personal transport, we found no major difference between driving the base 2012 Toyota Prius c One through the top-of-the-line Prius c Four. The better way to view the Prius c, is that it's for buyers -- specifically, Millenials -- who'd like the larger Toyota Prius hatchback but don't want to pay the starting $23,000-plus price tag. Toyota focuses on creature comforts to differentiate the models, especially connectivity, with the base One offering standard keyless entry, Bluetooth, and USB outlets, to the Prius c Three offering available GPS navigation and Entune, Toyota's smartphone-interactive infotainment system. A sunroof is also available in the Toyota Prius c Three and Four. We agree with Toyota that most buyers will opt for the Prius c Two and Three, which offers most of the "standard" features people expect in vehicles, such as tilt/telescoping steering, 60/40 fold-down rear seat, and the aforementioned Entune. Price-wise, you're still paying a premium versus a non-hybrid like the Ford Fiesta.

But the 2012 Toyota Prius c supplants the Honda Insight, its closest competitor. Though similar in pricing (the Honda Insight starts at $19,120 which includes the $770 destination fee), the Prius c has greater standard content like nine airbags, Bluetooth, and keyless entry, and beats the Insight, which uses a mild-hybrid powertrain, in fuel economy; Toyota Prius c gets an EPA-rated 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined versus Honda Insight's EPA-estimated 41 mpg city/44 mpg highway/41 mpg combined. For Honda's sake, one hopes the upcoming Accord plug-in hybrid is a home-run, because its Insight just had a stake driven through its heart.

Spec Box

2012 Toyota Prius (all models) *. We averaged in the low 40s driving aggressively and primarily with street driving.

2012 Toyota Prius c One: $19,710**; 1.5-liter four-cylinder + electric motors; 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined*
2012 Toyota Priuc c Two: $20,660**; 1.5-liter four-cylinder + electric motors; 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined*
2012 Toyota Prius c Three: $22,395**; 1.5-liter four-cylinder + electric motors; 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined*
2012 Toyota Prius c Four: $23,990**; 1.5-liter four-cylinder + electric motors; 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway/50 mpg combined*

* EPA-estimated
**Pricing includes $760 destination fee

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