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As a city dweller, I immediately appreciated the size of the 2012 Toyota Prius C, delivered to the CNET garage in a bright orange color called Habanero. The Prius C is a small hatchback, a little over 13 feet long, with the "C" in the name meaning City.
Through the brighter shade of orange, I could just make out the car's nicely styled body, with a swept-back design toward the rear. The front has the standard Toyota Prius nose bump, complete with blue-tinted badge, marking the car as part of the Prius lineup. The biggest fault of the design is the colossal taillights, which dominate the rear quarters.
The Prius C follows the original Prius and last year's Prius V as part of a very canny strategy to expand the Prius brand. Toyota decided, correctly I think, that the main thing holding back Prius sales was that a midsize hatchback doesn't work for everyone. The Prius V is a solution for those needing a larger car, and the Prius C gives people wanting something smaller an option.
The Prius C is, of course, a hybrid. It uses basically the same hybrid system as the Prius, meaning a gas engine coupled with an electric motor. The system stores braking energy in a nickel metal hydride battery, using it to power the 45-kilowatt electric motor, which can drive the car by itself under low acceleration. The car's gas engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, smaller than the 1.8-liter in the Prius. The combined output of the gas engine and electric motor in the Prius C is 99 horsepower.
Grocery bags prove too tall for the Prius C's cargo cover.
Given its smaller size and engine, I would have expected the Prius C to get substantially better fuel economy than the Prius. But its EPA rating comes out to 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. Its bigger brother pulls in 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. Holding the Prius C back is a drag coefficient worse than that of the Prius.
But during my time with the car, the trip computer showed fuel economy consistently over 50 mpg in freeway driving. The realities of driving on a California freeway, with cruising speeds around 65 mph, differ from the EPA's highway test procedure. It seems the little Prius C is optimized for higher speeds. As a result, CNET's car turned in an average of 51.2 mpg after a week's worth of combined city and freeway driving.
There were no surprises in the driving character of the Prius C. Given its 99 horsepower, it did not exactly leap off the line, and took a while to get up to freeway cruising speeds. But it was fast enough to keep up with traffic and make quick lane changes, giving a short burst of speed to take advantage of an opening.
The Prius C shows this power-flow animation screen on its instrument cluster and head unit displays.
Toyota engineered a reasonably comfortable ride into the Prius C. I found it certainly reflected its price point, not completely insulating me from the outside world. But it was very good for its class. Helping the comfort level were very soft padded seats. At freeway speeds, the car held its ground well enough. Strong winds would likely throw it around some, but no more than other small cars.
The steering showed all the play of a typical American car. Whether in the city or on the freeway, I could jiggle it with little effect on the car's direction. That tuning makes for comfortable cruising, but lacks a sharp, responsive character. No matter, as the Prius C is no sports car. When I turned the wheel at low speeds, the whir of electric boost was obvious. The car also showed a good, tight turning radius, helpful in an urban environment.
Toyota includes both Eco and EV mode buttons, but I found little reason to use them. EV mode tries to maintain electric propulsion, but kicked in the gas engine as soon as I pushed the accelerator appreciably. Eco mode detunes acceleration, supposedly helping me achieve better fuel economy. But I found I could use the accelerator lightly enough on my own.
The Eco Score display contributed much more to any efficient driving on my part. I became obsessed with this little display, sitting to the right of the digital speedometer. Packed into its confines was information on the current battery level, average fuel economy, trip miles, and even the time, but the Eco Score had my full attention.
The Eco Score screen presents a worthy challenge, a game where the reward is excellent fuel economy.
This 1 to 100 score is based on three data points: starting, cruising, and stopping. I soon found that mastering a good start was easy. Stopping well was difficult, partly due to traffic. The system does not like quick stops, of course, but also gave me low scores for applying the brakes too early, something I did frequently to take advantage of the regeneration.
I never mastered the Eco Score system's cruising metric. It was difficult to figure out what the system considered efficient cruising. In the city, traffic made steady cruising impossible, and the car did not seem to be aware of hills, which necessitated extra accelerator input. My best overall score was a 95, attained while driving a city block with only the start and stop metrics.
CNET's Prius C was in the Three trim, one short of the top, so it came well equipped with cabin electronics. Standard at this trim is a navigation system and Toyota's Entune app integration system, along with features such as a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and a USB port for the stereo.
I previously tested Entune in both the Prius V and the new Camry. In both of those vehicles, the various Entune apps required an undue amount of wait time. But Toyota must have refined Entune since I tested those cars, because it worked satisfyingly quickly in the Prius C. It pulled in gas prices at nearby stations and traffic data, which integrated nicely with the navigation system. Even Bing searches were quicker than I had previously seen.
Entune gives access to a variety of very useful external data when connected to a smartphone.
To access the Entune apps, I had to have Entune running on my iPhone, and the iPhone plugged into the car's USB port. This port is placed relatively conveniently out in the open, on a shelf below the glove box. The head unit incorporates a 6.1-inch touch-screen LCD, which shows apps, navigation, audio, and phone screens. The problem with this LCD is its susceptibility to glare. In any sort of sunlight, it was unreadable.
Another gripe: two different warning screens popped up on the display before I could use Entune, one telling me the system would use my phone's data connection and another warning that I might get charged for overuse of data. For each screen, I had to hit an OK button. Despite using Entune, my phone was well within my monthly data cap.
Toyota could alleviate the glare problem a bit with a white background for the navigation system's maps. The gray looks nice enough, and I liked how street names popped up in labels, but it doesn't matter how it looks if I can't see it. Route guidance was very good with this system, as it showed useful turn graphics on the screen and the audible prompts included street names.
The hands-free phone system incorporated all the features I have come to expect from a good tech car. After pairing my phone, my contact list became available on the touch screen. I could also use voice commands to place calls by name. Toyota takes the features one step further with a text message function, but the iPhone doesn't support the protocol that would allow messages to appear on the screen.
With iPod integration, the audio system shows album art and track details.
Of course, my connected iPhone's music library was available via the touch screen. More impressively, when I chose Pandora from the audio sources menu on the Prius C's touch screen, it automatically launched the app on my phone. That functionality is due to an improvement in car-iPhone connectivity, and is becoming available in other vehicles as well.
Toyota does not give the Prius C much in the way of sound system options. Our Three-trim car had an unbranded six-speaker system, with no upgrade options available. Within its limits, the system sounded good. The bass was robust, although it began to sound like it was underwater with the volume up high. Definition was also good, supported by tweeters in the door panels shooting across the cabin at each other. Turning the volume knob way up resulted in bad distortion all around, but the system sounded nice at moderate volume.
At the heart of the 2012 Prius C is Toyota's excellent hybrid power train, which helps the little car consistently hit an average of over 50 mpg. Toyota shrank the hybrid system for the Prius C slightly, making it more appropriate for the smaller car. Toyota could explore other fuel-saving technology, such as direct injection, to further improve the economy.
The Prius C gets to show off new cabin technology, the navigation system being one intriguing component. This new, flash memory-based system shows maps in 2D and 3D, and would be a good upgrade across the Toyota model lineup. The Entune app system worked particularly well in the Prius C, giving it very modern external data integration matched by few other automakers.
That the touch screen is so susceptible to glare is a sad flaw in this otherwise excellent cabin electronics package. This one design fault can prove exceedingly frustrating, as it detracts from the general utility of the cabin tech.
|Model||2012 Toyota Prius C|
|Power train||1.5-liter gasoline-electric hybrid system, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||53 mpg city/46 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||51.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash memory-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with voice command and integrated address book|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$23,245|