By now, you've seen the whimsical commercials for the Prius C, the new small member of the expanded Toyota hybrid family that includes the standard Prius, larger V and an upcoming plug-in model. The automaker bills the C as the "city-friendly member of the Prius family" and we found that description to be about right.
Appearance: We think it's better-looking than the standard Prius, which is now in its third generation. The C is built on the same platform as Toyota's Yaris subcompact. It has a trapezoidal grille, which is not its best feature, and large upswept headlights. The rear is dominated by large vertical taillights and a hatchback spoiler. The design doesn't scream hybrid or futuristic, and that's a good thing. Instead the C, in profile, recalls stylish subcompacts such as the Honda Fit and Mazda2.
Performance: First things first, the C stands for City, which means the car's 99 combined horsepower (Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive and 1.5 liter DOHC 16-valve engine) isn't going to set any records on highway on-ramps. Lyra found interstate merging an adventure. The car's electronic Continuously Variable Transmission doesn't lend itself to acceleration. The estimated mileage rating of 53 city and 46 highway seems too good to be true, but Peter had to work hard at getting the needle to move in a week's driving. The C is also fairly nimble and its size makes it easy to navigate crowded parking lots. The regenerative brakes aren't as grabby compared with other hybrids.
Interior: For a subcompact, the C is surprisingly roomy up front, with more than adequate headroom and legroom. The backseat, however, is a tight fit, and can be difficult to get in and out of for adults or backpack-carrying kids. The cabin looks modern, if plastic-y, although as in the standard Prius, Toyota cleverly adds texture to the plastic to make it feel more expensive. Our top-of-the-line tester, the Four (trim levels are named One, Two, Three . . .) had heated front seats trimmed with "eco-friendly" SofTex. The seats are comfortable. The rear visibility of the hatchback is also better than its bigger sibling, without an annoying mid-hatch bar across the window. We liked the angled, asymmetrical center console. On top of the dash is a 3.5-inch information display, which shows the car's performance, including its eco score and energy monitor. The 6.1-inch touchscreen is small, but our tester had all the electronics (Toyota's Entune multimedia system) that younger buyers could want, including SiriusXM radio, HD radio with iTunes Tagging, USB, Bluetooth and voice recognition.
Our 3 favorites
Commuter car: One of the few hybrids I could see myself owning.
Mileage: The selling point.
Feel: Is the C fun? That may be slightly strong, but it is an enjoyable drive.
Price: A starting price of less than $20K.
MPG: Up to 53 means you'll visit the pump less often.
Design: Understated exterior doesn't scream "hybrid." Inside, the asymmetrical console and textured plastics give it a contemporary feel.
The bottom line: The Toyota Prius C is a stylish city car that gets great gas mileage, and just happens to be a hybrid with a reasonable base price.