Sunday, May 13, 2012

Prius C - The Cute Prius

Photo: Victor Llana (www.boundlesscaptures.com)
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Toyota Prius, the world's most successful hybrid, is now a family of FOUR models. Not only is there the "regular" Prius, now subtitled the Liftback, but there's the Prius V, a larger wagon style model and an electric plug-in version of the Liftback. It's the first Prius you can charge--and you can get up to 13 miles of completely fuel-free motoring out of it.

The new Prius C brings gas/electric power to the masses, slotting in below the Liftback. The engine is smaller, but the principle is the same--a gas engine part of the time supplemented by an electric motor for maximum fuel economy. As with other Prii, you find yourself using gas on the freeway, but often running on battery power alone on surface streets. The car shuts off at traffic lights.

This means an average of 50 miles per gallon per the EPA--53 in town and 46 on the highway. In reality, I achieved 47.3 mpg--still about as good as it gets short of a pure electric. You can get a wealth of information about your fuel economy in charts, graphs, and lists of information on the numerous screens on the dash. Just push buttons on the steering wheel and it's all before you. There's the same flow diagram as on other Prii, but reduced in scale, that shows you where the energy to run the car is coming from--and how the battery is being charged. You have to be careful not to lose your focus on the road ahead. As in other Prii, you can learn to drive more efficiently by paying attention to the numbers.

The thing is, despite its fuel-saving mission, this car is nice to live with on a day-to-day basis. Inside, the surfaces have the multiple textures that other Prii have. It used to be that all plastic in cars tried to replicate leather or pigskin. Now, it could be rice paper or a kind of wavy line pattern. It's light gray and charcoal here, with some fanciful rolling gridwork that makes the surfaces pulse organically. A blue trim line tones in with the blue plastic motif on the floor shift lever of the automatic--the same plastic insert as found on the big Prii.

The car is a good foot shorter than a Liftback--I know because I parked next to one--but it doesn't feel shortchanged inside. There is real rear seat room for a full-sized person back there, and adequate headroom, too.

The Prius C comes in four levels. Level one gets a surprisingly level of standard fare, including full climate control, a multi-information display, AM/FM/CD with Bluetooth, Level two throws in cruise control, split rear seats and a rear cargo cover. Level three adds a smart key--a real upscale feeling item--and upgrades the screen interface. My test car was a three--in Habanero--a friendly and comment-inducing orange. Want alloy wheels? That's level four--with artificial leather covered heated front seats.

Prices start at $19,710--including shipping. The top price, not including any options, is $23,990. So, it gives you lots of choices before you even touch the Liftback.

With 1.5 liters of engine putting out just 73 horsepower, and a combined horsepower rating of just 99 including the electric motor, performance is not exciting. With just me in the car, it was a competent hauler on streets and freeways--quiet and smooth. And with nearly 50 miles per gallon, it's cheap to run.

This is a cheerful, easy-to-like little car. The small dash screen greets you with a cute Prius C image zooming by and says goodbye when you turn it off. It should make the Prius an even stronger brand--and make it a purchase option for young, first-time buyers.

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