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2012 Toyota Prius c Profile and Ride Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Toyota Prius c

By Carey Russ

• SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyers Guide

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Toyota Prius c

Toyota owns the hybrid sector of the automotive marketplace, with over 50 percent of sales in the past decade being Toyota hybrids. And the most popular one is the Prius, icon and poster child for the genre.

Introduced in the U.S. for model year 2001 as a rather ungainly-looking sedan, the Prius solidified its lock on the hybrid market when the distinctive, streamlined second generation debuted for model year 2004. Its unique and instantly recognizable design featured excellent space utilization, to maximize interior volume in a still rather small car. So when the current, third, generation showed up for 2010, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

As popular as the regular Prius, now called the Liftback, has been, it's not and never was meant to be the hybrid for everyone. Not even everyone who wanted a Prius. So the lineup is growing -- the larger Prius v (for "versatile") has been with us since last Fall. It's soon to be complemented by the smaller Prius c, which was recently shown to the automotive press in La Jolla, California, just north of San Diego.

Watch TACH's exclusive Prius c interview

"c" here means "city", the Prius c's expected environment. As the v is larger than the Liftback, so the c is smaller. But where the v uses the same chassis platform and Hybrid Synergy Drive as the Liftback, the c does not. If you've ever wondered why there was no hybrid Yaris or Scion, here's why -- the Prius c uses the Yaris platform, suitably modified for a Hybrid Synergy Drive system based on that of the second-generation Prius; with modifications to take advantage of rapid developments in electronics -- which means smaller and lighter.

The gasoline engine is the 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter twincam 16-valve four-cylinder Atkinson cycle unit familiar from the second (US) generation Prius. Maximum horsepower is 73 at 4800 rpm; maximum torque is 82 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Compared to the older Prius, accessory drive belts have been eliminated. The air conditioning compressor and water pump and engine coolant pump are now electrically-driven. Which means that cabin climate control can continue operating when the engine's stopped. Which will happen often while driving in normal hybrid mode when the electric motor takes over, and completely in EV mode -- in which the Prius c can operate at speeds of up to 25 mph for approximately one-half mile, depending on charge. No, it's not an EV, nor is it a plug-in hybrid. The official plug-in version of the Prius Liftback is coming, very soon.

The P510 hybrid transaxle is a new unit developed from the second-generation Prius's P112, with considerable difference inside. It's smaller and lighter than the other current Toyota hybrid transaxles, and is cooled by oil, not liquid coolant as previously, further reducing size and weight. It incorporates two motor-generators. The first, MG1, has 56 horsepower and it the starter and generator. The second, MG2, the main traction motor, produces a maximum of 60 hp and 124.6 lb-ft of torque. It also provides regenerative braking. Electric motors produce maximum torque as soon as they start to rotate…

The 144-volt nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack is also smaller and lighter than the 201-V battery in the Liftback. It's positioned under the rear seat. All major masses in the c -- the engine, electric motors, transmission, and power control unit -- are positioned low and, as much as possible, within the wheelbase of the car for a low center of gravity to improve handling and to maximize passenger cabin space in a minimized footprint.

Maximum system horsepower is 99. The Prius c weighs more than 500 pounds less than the Liftback, 2500 pounds versus a little over 3000. It's almost twenty inches shorter on a six-inch shorter wheelbase, but only two inches lower and narrower. Saying that it's built on the Yaris platform is not saying that it's a Yaris hybrid in new skin -- there is considerable modification to suit the different drivetrain. Suspension is the class-standard MacPherson struts at the front, with a torsion-beam axle at the rear. Brakes are front disc, rear drum -- but aided by a strong dose of regenerative braking. As in other Toyota hybrids braking is electronically controlled, "brake by wire".

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Toyota Prius c

Use of existing, if modified, components means less cost, important since the Prius c is meant to be the "gateway Prius" and buyers are expected to be young singles or couples. There are four trim levels, grades in Toyota's terminology, One through Four. Ones start at an MSRP of $18,950, Twos at $19,900, Threes at $21,635, and Fours at $23,230. Differences are primarily in audio and cabin electronics systems, although the Four does have SofTex ultralight leatherette upholstery available instead of the standard cloth.

The One has a four-speaker AM/FM/CD (with MP3 and WMA capability) audio system with an audio jack and USB/iPod® connectivity and hands-free phone, phone book access, and music streaming via Bluetooth® connectivity. The Two gets a six-speaker version of that. Three and Four get the Display Audio System with navigation and the Entune™ smartphone-based multimedia system, also adding a 6.1-inch touchscreen and SiriusXM™ satellite radio. Wheels and interior trim and available options change with grade, but even the One is well-equipped and in no way lacking.

As is usual at a press launch, after the morning briefing and questions, it was time to drive. True to the "c" moniker, the drive route was surface streets, but hilly California surface streets with sometimes indifferent paving. Ride quality, interior comfort, maneuverability, and especially hill climbing ability and braking could be easily tested.

The Prius c passed with flying colors. No, it doesn't offer the interior quiet and ride comfort of a Lexus LS hybrid -- nor does it have the higher price point of that car. Toyota admits that the Prius c is built to a price, and no foul there. It's comparable in comfort, appointment, and ability to anything in the subcompact hatch class, and on less unleaded regular. EPA fuel economy estimates are 53 mpg city, 46 highway, and 50 overall. YMMV, as they say, especially as hybrid mileage is even more dependent on driving style than with internal combustion.

To help that, there are multiple driving modes. Eco gives less sensitivity to throttle pedal movement than the default, helping economy and not really hindering acceleration when needed -- just press the pedal more. EV (electric vehicle) mode is good for short distances -- half a mile -- under 25 mph. For pedestrian safety, the car makes a strange low-volume whirring noise when in EV mode.

The interior is more mainstream than in other members of the Prius family. Ride quality and handling are comparable to the newest Yaris, very good for the small hatch class. Steering, as in other cars with electric assist, is a bit numb. There's enough power to deal with all daily driving needs, and the little Prius can accelerate smartly up a steep hill.

Unlike other Prius models, the c's shifter is on the floor and looks and acts just like that of a regular car with an automatic transmission. Well, there is "B" mode, beyond D. That, as in other Toyota hybrids, is regenerative braking mode, for generating electricity when descending long grades. No need to ride the brake pedal, and it works admirably well. There seemed to be more regenerative brake power in normal braking, too. This little car stops very well! The examples I drove were pre-production cars, so calibration could be a little different in regular production cars. Or not, as usually Toyota's pre-production cars are nearly identical in all ways to production.

Availability is March, so the Prius c should be at dealers very soon.

• SEE ALSO: 2012 Toyota Prius v Three Ride and Review By Carey Russ +VIDEO