When the smallest, most affordable and most fuel-efficient Prius appeared in my driveway last week, I said to no one in particular, “What’s not to like?” Besides the garish nearly neon orange paint job that would look perfect in the road construction business or as the Denver Broncos mascot, I found the Toyota Prius c extremely easy to live with, drive around town and even handle four passengers on a 300-mile road trip.
But the Prius c ain’t perfect, especially when you compare it to the Prius sedan. Many car critics have knocked the Prius c for its cheap interior and anemic power. So let’s explore the highs and lows of the 2012 Prius c.
The Most Normal-Looking Prius Family Member
The Prius c is a compact hatchback that is a few inches smaller in nearly every way than a Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta hatchback or Volkswagen Golf. For many city and urban drivers, that’s a nearly perfect size and the hatchback is a winner for convenience and easy access to rear storage space.
The first thing you may notice about the Prius c is that it looks quite normal, unlike its bigger brother that still looks like some kind of futuristic space machine even though the car style you know as the Prius sedan has been sold in the United States since 2003.
How do you know the Prius c looks different and better than the standard Prius? Many people who haven’t yet seen the Prius c asked me about the car and didn’t immediately identify it as a funky hybrid. They simply thought it looked like a nice, small hatch, though I didn’t talk to a single person who was ready to adorn their own Prius c in my test car’s Habanero orange paint. Here’s the good news about the Habanero paint job: you’ll never lose your Prius c in a crowd.
Watch comparison of 2012 Prius c vs. 2012 Prius Plug-in
52 MPG Over 400 Miles
Fuel economy is the main reason you buy a Prius and I’ve long contended that if you want the most fuel-efficient and practical car at a reasonable price, you buy the Prius sedan. But prepare to sacrifice exciting driving dynamics of any kind because the standard Prius is a snore behind the wheel. But you probably don’t care because you’re getting 50+ mpg, right?
When I had my first chance to sample the Prius c last spring in San Diego, California, I was immediately impressed by the fuel efficiency of this small car when I drove 60 miles in a mix of highway and city driving and realized real-world fuel economy of 56 mpg. While I didn’t achieve that same number over the 400 miles I covered during the past week, I still managed to coax 52.3 mpg out of the 99-horsepower engine. That’s impressive when you consider that I drove 280 of those miles on the freeway on my way to and from Bear Lake, Utah. And since that drive included ascending and descending from 7,200-feet of elevation two different times, I’m confident drivers in flat areas could likely improve on those fuel-efficiency numbers.
The EPA predicts the Prius c will return 46 mpg on the freeway and a class-leading 53 mpg in the city. In fact, the only mainstream vehicles that can best that 53-mpg rating plug in to outlets and are called the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, both of which cost more. In the case of the Volt, a lot more.
Weak but Adequate Performance
Fuel efficiency is impressive; performance is not. The Prius c gasoline engine makes 73 horsepower and the remaining 26 horsepower comes from the electric motor. With only 99 combined horsepower, the Prius is the last car you want to drive in a drag race. Yet in city driving, that low power output is perfectly adequate. You can move from intersection to intersection and stoplight to stoplight at the same speed of the cars around you. Just expect to hear the continuously variable transmission to howl like an angry wolf when you push the engine hard.
On the highway, give yourself some breathing room before you try to merge with fast traffic. Once you’re up to speed you’re fine, but don’t try any quick maneuvers that will stretch the capabilities of this car. Drive the Prius c slowly and deliberately to achieve 50-mpg in daily driving and you’ll be one very happy Prius owner.
You can drive the Prius c in EV (Electric Vehicle) mode at speeds up to 25 mph. During my 400-mile travels, I ended up driving in electric mode for 44 miles or just over 10 percent. It helped shave a few pennies off my gasoline costs but this car is much more of a hybrid than an electric car.
On the TFLcar.com recommendation scale of:
- Buy it
- Lease it
- Rent it or
- Forget it
I give the 2012 Toyota Prius c a RENT IT!
Here’s why I say rent it. Given the choice between the Prius c and Prius sedan, I would pick the Prius sedan. The one Prius that wouldn’t be in the running is the Prius Plug-In because it’s simply too expensive to justify its high upfront cost. I would choose the sedan largely because I have a family that regularly takes road trips and the trunk of the Prius c is a bit small for my needs. Since fuel economy is basically the same between the two cars, I suggest you rent a Prius c and a Prius sedan for a few days each. You’ll quickly know which car best fits your lifestyle and needs.
As tested: $25,140
Michael Waterman’s first car was a 1978 Ford Fiesta. Not particularly prestigious, but awfully fuel-efficient. He’s still a fan of efficient, practical vehicles, especially those that can hold their own in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains where Michael lives and writes about cars. He’s the former Executive Editor of Vehix.com and also writes about cars at SpeedyDaddy.com. When he’s not covering cars, he writes about music at toponehitwonders.com.