First Drive Toyota Prius C

Toyota Prius C: Green - and affordable

Seattle — Special to The Globe and Mail

2012 Prius c (Toyota)

Toyota Canada is pitching the 2012 Prius c hybrid ($20,950 base) as a slightly premium “green” car – the four-door, subcompact hatchback for the socially conscious buyer who is willing to pay a little more to do something more for the environment.

And, indeed, up until now gasoline-electric hybrids have been premium rides – cars for buyers willing to spend extra to use less fuel and spew significantly fewer kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

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I mean, the regular midsize Prius hatch, the original Prius, will cost you $27,560 (freight included) versus $22,335 (freight included) for a comparably equipped Toyota Matrix hatchback. So there’s a $5,225 Prius premium to do the green thing, not including the fuel savings of a Prius which are not inconsequential.

Do the same for the Prius c versus a comparably equipped Toyota Yaris four-door hatch and the hybrid costs an extra $5,100. But again, that is until you factor in fuel costs. Go down that road and the price premium drops to $900 over an eight-year ownership period – less if fuel prices jump.

The numbers: The federal government’s fuel consumption guide (oee.nrcan.gc.ca/home) calculates that the Prius c will use $6,216 in fuel over eight years ($777 a year) versus $10,416 for the Yaris ($1,302 a year). The difference: $4,200 saved by driving the Prius c.

For now. If there’s more trouble in the Middle East or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez completely loses his mind, the Prius c premium goes down as pump prices jump. And also remember that over eight years the Prius c pumps dramatically less CO2 into the atmosphere (9,200 kg, in fact).

Those crunched numbers suggest Toyota may have a problem meeting Prius c demand. In fact, Automotive News says Toyota Motor is churning out a meagre 6,000 Prius c cars a month for North America. Toyota is struggling to deal with supply constraints and soaring demand in Japan. Toyota apparently had an initial backlog of 120,000 orders for Japan, where the car is sold as the Aqua.

Toyota would rather sell more Prius c cars in Japan because the yen’s high exchange rate versus the dollar (in the U.S. and Canada) crimps profits on Japan-made cars. This Prius is made only at a plant in northern Japan. Toyota has said it’s working to pump up production, however.

Good idea. While the Prius c is smaller and slimmer than the regular Prius, it’s big enough to carry four adults. What’s more, the rear seatbacks split and fold almost completely flat, which means the already decent cargo area expands to carry home your IKEA packaged furniture.

The Prius c is Yaris-sized and that’s big enough for a long list of urban runabout chores. Except that the Prius c is far more attractive than the Yaris. For starters, the roofline is graceful and quite low compared to the Yaris. This shows what Toyota’s designers have been able to accomplish, given the Prius c rides on a Yaris platform – from the same MacPherson struts that support the front end to the same twist-beam axle underpinning the rear. The difference is that the Prius c has been tuned to match the car’s lower centre of gravity and low-rolling-resistance tires.

As a city car, the c works just fine. Toyota says the ride here has been tuned on the sporty side, but that’s a stretch. In the hurly burly of stop-and-go driving, the Prius c feels calm enough and really quite settled. On the highway, however, the numb electric steering is disconcerting. The Prius c is not about dashing through slalom courses and the 0-100 km/h time of around 11.5 seconds is unremarkable.

The one negative in the city is the turning circle. The tires apparently fill the fenders to the extent that Toyota’s engineers have restricted the amount of steering lock, making for a big, big turning circle.

The rest? Toyota scaled down the entire power train and hybrid system compared to its bigger Prius sibling. The four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gas engine has been downsized from 1.8 to 1.5 litres, with horsepower down to 73 from 98.

Toyota is rightly proud of its Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The primary electric drive in the c is 60 hp, compared to 80 in the Prius. The nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack is smaller and compactly parked under the back seat. Combined Prius c output comes in at 99 hp, versus 134 hp for the regular Prius.

The c car itself? The relaxed driving position is comfortable and front legroom is fine. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes and the high centre-mounted gauges are what we expect from any Prius. I like the car’s normal console shifter and a centre-pull parking brake lever.

And if we’re comparing Yaris to Prius c, well, the latter is loaded: automatic climate control, six-speaker stereo with USB and Bluetooth, steering-wheel controls, keyless entry, cruise control and all the rest.

Honestly, if I were to buy a Prius of any sort, the c would most likely be it. Essentially the hybrid price premium no longer exists and as a green grocery getter, the Prius c is simply a winner.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Toyota Prius c

Type: subcompact four-door hatchback

Price: $20,950 (freight $1,565)

Gas engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower and torque: 73/82 lb-ft

Transmission: continuously variable or CVT

Hybrid/electric drive: 144-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack and primary electric motor rated at 60 hp

Combined hybrid output: 99 hp

Drive: front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 3.5 city/4.0 highway using regular fuel

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Honda CR-Z, Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio5, Chevrolet Sonic, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, Scion xB

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