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2012 Toyota Prius c Three Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

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2012 Toyota Prius c Three


2012 Toyota Prius c Three

Since its debut in the US over a decade ago, the Toyota Prius has become almost synonymous with the gasoline-electric hybrid car. Over half of the hybrids sold have been Toyotas, with the Prius the most popular of those.

But there's room for improvement, and as space-efficient as the Prius is, it may not be the right size for everyone. So the Prius line has been expanding from the original, now in its third North American generation and called the Liftback. The larger Prius v (for "versatile") was introduced last Fall. And the smaller Prius c -- as in "city" -- has just been released.

While keeping the iconic Prius family look, the Prius c is distinctively different from its siblings and noticeably smaller. If you've ever wondered why there was no Toyota Yaris Hybrid, here's why -- the Prius c uses the Yaris platform, suitably modified to take a Hybrid Synergy Drive system based on that of the second-generation (US) Prius with modification to take advantage of the rapid development of electronics. Meaning not only a smaller and lighter gasoline engine, but smaller and lighter electrical and electronic components as well.

The 1.5-liter 1NZ-FXE gasoline engine is familiar from the 2004-9 Prius. For further efficiency, accessory drive belts have been eliminated. The air conditioning compressor and water pump and engine coolant pump are electrically-driven, so cabin climate control can continue operating normally when the engine is off. Which will happen often at low speeds in hybrid mode, or in EV mode, in which the car can be driven at speeds up to 25 mph for as long as half a mile, depending on the battery charge.

The Prius c's hybrid CVT transaxle is a new design, developed from that of the previous Prius but smaller and lighter, and now cooled by oil, not liquid coolant. The 144-volt nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack is smaller and lighter than the 201-V pack in the Liftback, and positioned under the rear seat to maximize luggage space. Maximum system horsepower is 99, but the Prius c weighs more than 500 pounds less than the current and about 400 less than the previous Liftback, so it can hold its own in traffic and merging just fine.

As is the Toyota Way, multiple grades (trim levels) are offered. One is the base model, but even it is well-equipped, with nearly all of the popular interior conveniences plus Toyota's comprehensive Star Safety System. Two upgrades the audio system and interior, while Three further upgrades audio and adds a flash drive-based navigation system and the Entuneā„¢ infotainment system and more interior and exterior enhancement. Four gets larger wheels and tires and quicker steering plus "SofTex"-trimmed heated front seats, a leatherette material lighter in weight and more environmentally-friendly than leather.

I first drove the Prius c a few months ago when it was introduced to the press in La Jolla, CA. That was mostly city driving, with a bit of highway, and the little Prius worked admirably well, even on steep hills, and attracted plenty of attention. I've just finished a week at home with one, and like it even more. Attention to suspension calibration has made it actually fun to drive, and regenerative braking gives it great stopping power. It's roomier inside than its small stature suggests, and easily squeezes into tight parking spaces. Although designed for the city, it's capable on the highway and even more so on the scenic route. Driving in a manner as un hybrid-friendly as possible I still got 48 mpg for the week, and could do much better if I tried. An alternative technology a decade ago, Toyota's Prius is now solidly mainstream. And will become even more ubiquitous thanks to the capable and inexpensive Prius c.

APPEARANCE: No, the "c" doesn't mean "cute". But it could. As with many small cars today, the Prius c's proportions, like those of young animals, are a little different than those of the adults. The short hood and long, relatively high passenger cabin maximize interior space in a minimized footprint, all the better for tight urban parking. The c is obviously a Prius, just look at the profile. Or the front, which has a determined face. Or the rearā€¦Ā Like the larger Prius v, the c has a near-vertical rear hatch window and a high roofline. Which further enhance passenger and cargo space. Wheels, except at the highest trim level, are pressed steel with plastic covers.

COMFORT: Space efficiency is as important as fuel efficiency if, like Toyota's target customer for the Prius c, you're young (or young in wallet) and on a budget and so can only afford one car that has to do it all. What space there is inside the Prius c is put to good use. None is wasted, and useful small storage spaces have been carved out of the top dash in front of the driver (for tolls and loose change) and above the glove box, for music player attachment. Toyota admits that the Prius c was built to a budget -- name an inexpensive vehicle that isn't -- and so don't expect wood and leather. Do expect hard plastics in multiple colors and textures, surprisingly good front seats (manually-adjustable, of course), and a contoured rear that has admirable room for two, with the center best for small people and short times. In short, a first-rate, comfortable subcompact hatchback.

As in other Prius models, the instrument panel offsets the main instruments toward the center and near the base of the windshield. The digital speedometer display is not all that far from the center of driver's field of vision, and fuel level and an adjustable information display are found next to it. In the lower center of the IP are, in the Three, the secondary displays and controls -- a touch-screen interface for the navigation and infotainment systems and simple climate controls. Unlike other Priuses, the shifter is on the floor console, not a small stalk in the IP. It's like any other automatic except L is replaced by B, for regenerative braking mode, useful descending long grades. In all grades, the steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach.

Interior storage is good, with the small spaces mentioned plus pockets with bottle holders in the front doors and space behind the folding (60/40 in Two and above) rear seat. A space-saver tire lives under the rear cargo floor.

SAFETY: The Star Safety System, a suite including Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control, antilock brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and Smart Stop Technology (SST) is standard in every Prius c. As are nine airbags, a uni-body structure designed and built for passenger protection, and hill start assist.

RIDE AND HANDLING: In specification, the Prius c sounds like the typical, average subcompact hatchback: transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, disc brakes and independent MacPherson strut suspension in front, drums and a torsion-beam axle in the rear. Electrically-assisted power steering is increasingly common, and usually video game console numb. Surprise one: the steering feels normal, with a moderate effort but no overt numbness. Surprise two: handling is responsive and allows a degree of enthusiastic driving not before part of the Prius experience. Toyota is paying attention to suspension tuning! No surprise: braking performance is exceptional. In a light car, rear drums are no major demerit and it gets what for me is a main benefit of a hybrid -- regenerative braking. That's like compression braking in the old days, but easier on the engine components. And it charges the traction battery.

PERFORMANCE: With over 25 pounds of Prius c for every one of its Hybrid Synergy Drive's 99 maximum horsepower, it's not a Top Fuel drag racer. But thanks to the wide spread of virtual gearing from its CVT transmission, it's quick enough to deal with traffic. Yes, it may not break every speed limit known going up a steep hill, but it makes it just fine, and does it on admirably little fuel -- even if the driver is trying to get the worst mileage possible. Yes, that would be me, with a mere 48 mpg for the week.

CONCLUSIONS: Toyota continues to expand its hybrid presence with the new Prius c.

Watch TACH's exclusive Prius c interview

2012 Toyota Prius c Three

Base Price			$ 21,635
Price As Tested			$ 23,245
Engine Type			aluminum alloy 16-valve Atkinson cycle
				 DOHC inline 4-cylinder with VVT-i
				 variable cam phasing and lift
Engine Size			1.9 liters / 91 cu. in.
Horsepower			73 @ 4800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			82 @ 4000 rpm
Electric Motor Type		permanent magnet AC synchronous
Horsepower			60
Torque	 (lb-ft)		125
Total System Horsepower		99
Transmission			CVT
Wheelbase / Length		100.4 in. / 157.3 in.
Curb Weight			2,500 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		25.3
Fuel Capacity			9.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Battery Pack			144VDC NiMH, 6.5 amp-hour capacity
Tires				175/65 R15 84H Bridgestone Turanza
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / drum,
				 plus regenerative braking
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  semi-independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			transverse front engine and motor,
				  front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		53 / 46 / 48
0 to 60 mph				11.5  sec

Power tilt & slide moonroof		$ 850
Delivery charge				$ 760