The Toyota Prius may be a household name, but the world’s most famous petrol-electric model sits on nowhere near as many driveways as its manufacturer would have hoped. Can the new Toyota Prius C change all that?
This is the smallest member of what will be a trio of Prius family models when the seven-seater Toyota Prius V arrives in May to join the Prius-with-no-extra-letter (or regular Prius) that has now spanned three generations over 15 years.
The Prius C (we’re ignoring Toyota’s marketeers who insist on a lower-case ‘c’) is based on a tweaked version of the Toyota Yaris city car’s platform so it’s no surprise that its 3995mm length makes it nearly half a metre shorter than the regular Prius.
It’s a model that has been expected for some time to help Toyota achieve its ambitions of selling a million hybrids globally each year. And the Prius, until recently priced more in the region of a hot-hatch, was not going to do that alone.
Crucially, the shrink-washed Prius, the Prius C, comes with a correspondingly smaller price tag. And if Honda was pleased when it introduced its Honda Insight hybrid for less than $30,000 in late 2010, it will be in for quite a shock when it sees the Prius C’s $23,990 starting price that undercuts its model by $6000.
Toyota’s hybrid system also continues to be superior to Honda’s. Where Honda’s IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) employs an electric motor to complement the petrol engine’s performance, the electric motor of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive can power the vehicle on its own steam (as it were) – albeit for only short stints and for slow speeds.
The Toyota Prius C uses an upgraded version of the hybrid drivetrain used in the first two generations of the main Prius. That means a 1.5-litre ‘Atkinson cycle’ four-cylinder engine combined with electric motor and nickel-metal-hydride battery.
Together, they’re enough for a combined output of 74kW – 26kW less than the Prius that uses a 1.8-litre engine, but 11kW more than a similarly sized Toyota Yaris and 2kW ahead of the bigger Honda Insight.
However, although the Prius C is notably smaller, and 265kg lighter, than the regular Prius, some might be surprised to see its official combined fuel consumption is identical – 3.9 litres per 100km.
Toyota blames the outcome on an anomaly of the government test cycle, because the Prius C’s ‘urban’ and ‘extra urban’ figures are both lower – 3.7L/100km and 3.8L/100km, respectively.
It has admitted, though, that the smaller engine means it has to work harder than the Prius’s 1.8 at higher speeds, such as freeways – a well-known area of weakness for hybrids because the petrol engine is engaged for a larger percentage of time.
We managed an average of 5.4L/100km on the launch drive, a commendable figure considering we also found some terrifically twisty roads (not featured officially on the drive program) where we tried to find out whether the Prius C is more fun to drive than a Prius.
The Prius is deservedly renowned for being a fuel-sipper, but numb steering and a chassis with a reluctance for corners has meant the hybrid Toyota has always been more about hugging trees rather than the road.
Like the Prius there’s an underlying firmness to the ride (though the suspension deflects hits well), but indeed you will still find more entertainment and more finely honed chassis balance from diesel versions of those rival models if you’re a keen driver looking to keep your fuel bills low.
The Prius C’s more compact size and better weight distribution (the battery is packaged under the rear seats) certainly makes it a more nimble offering than its bigger brother, though.
The steering still gives little back to the driver but otherwise the Prius C is a less detached experience for the driver.
A key reason is the regenerative braking system that provides noticeably more feel than the Prius’s. While the initial application of the brake pedal is still a touch wooden, the Prius C sheds speed and comes to a standstill in a far smoother fashion than the overly sensitive Prius.
The hybrid drivetrain is rarely going to challenge the front wheels for traction, but performance is still quite spirited and on a par with most offerings in the city car segment. The engine gets more vocal at higher revs, but less pleasing is the droning soundtrack created by the continuously variable transmission.
And, as with the Prius, it’s difficult to prevent the petrol engine from kicking in and relying on electric power alone.
Moving away from traffic lights on the flat, or the slightest incline, will quickly result in the internal combustion unit intervening to assist momentum.
You can pick EV (Electric Vehicle) mode if you wish, but (as you’d hope) the petrol engine still kicks in and in this case is just accompanied by an audible and visual warning in the display to say you’ve exceeded the electric motor’s capability.
The transition from electric motor to petrol engine combo, however, continues to be impressively seamless. And it has to be said that the hybrid’s approach to quietly cutting off and re-introducing the petrol engine is generally quicker, quieter and less annoying to live with in stop-start traffic than, ironically, stop-start systems on regular petrol and diesel models.
And driving in an efficient manner is still clearly the Prius’s shtick, even with a C after its name.
The Energy Monitor makes the transition into the smaller Prius, graphically displaying the power flow between engine, electric motor and battery.
New for this Prius, though, is the multi-information, 3.5-inch thin film transistor (TFT) display that encourages Prius C owners to drive economically.
In a similar vein to Honda’s tree-growing challenge on its Insight and CR-Z hybrids, the Prius C includes an Eco Score that marks the driver out of 100 after comparing driving efficiency with the past 100 trips – as well as noting driving habits including standing starts (Start), normal driving (Cruise) and regenerative braking (Stop).
Toyota is keen to emphasise how the driver can play a major role in reducing fuel consumption purely through driving behaviour, though there’s more help with an Eco Mode that retards throttle response if you engage it via the simple press of the button (throttle response is otherwise good for a hybrid).
If you’re particularly obsessive about how much you spend on petrol, an Eco Savings feature will calculate costs per kilometre if you enter current fuel prices, and there’s an option to compare spending over a year and with other cars.
The multi-information panel is one of two displays on the dash, with the second, larger screen for audio (and satellite navigation if you’re in the more expensive, $26,990 i-Tech variant).
The various graphic and colourful displays comprise part of the space-age approach to the design for the dash – though for a future where soft-touch materials are clearly scarce judging by the plethora of hard plastics.
At least Toyota’s interior designers have tried to be inventive by creating patterns and varied textures for the plastics.
It should help the Toyota Prius C’s pitch to Gen Y, the generation of buyers the company believes will help turn the powertrain tide more in favour of hybrids rather than combustion engines over the next decade and beyond.
They’ll certainly have no problem fitting three friends in the back of the Prius C, providing none is too lanky. The rear bench also offers a thickset cushion with decent under-thigh support, though storage is negligible – just a single map pocket for the front passenger seatback.
Of course $23,990 is a remarkably low price for a hybrid but expensive when put into the context of city cars that can start from below $15,000.
Toyota says the Prius C is targeted at competitors at the higher end of the city car category – such as the VW Polo 77TSI and Ford Fiesta Zetec – as well as the lower end of the small-car segment.
And the Prius C certainly does its best to justify its above-average city car price, with the base model including features such as seven airbags, reverse-view camera, keyless entry and start, Bluetooth, cruise control and foglights.
Pay $3000 more for the $26,990 i-Tech and added to the mix are satellite navigation, LED headlights and higher-grade seat and interior materials.
Japan is already going crazy for the Prius C – or Aqua as it’s known in its domestic market – though consequently that is limiting supply to Australia, to about 1000 for 2012.
Australia, though, is one of the world markets proving how hybrids are still struggling to appeal to the masses – with Prius sales halving in 2011, for example.
Internal combustion engines also continue to fight back – against both hybrids and electric battery cars – with turbocharged three- and two-cylinder units becoming more prevalent – with even the likes of luxury brand BMW about to adopt them.
The Toyota Prius C in many ways, though, is a more convincing hybrid than the regular Prius. Its sub-four-metre length seems a more natural fit for urban environments where cars spend the majority of their times, without sacrificing huge amounts of practicality, and its more linear regenerative braking system is a welcome improvement.
And if a $23,990 starting price can’t get more hybrids onto driveways, it’s difficult to imagine what will.