Two and a half years after its introduction to our market, the Toyota Prius C has clearly established itself as the most popular model in the Japanese brand’s dedicated hybrid family.
Australia’s smallest and cheapest hybrid outsells the seven-seat Prius V two to one, and more than triples sales of the regular Prius small car.
The Toyota Prius C’s numbers are modest in the broader scheme, however, where it makes up less than two per cent of the city car segment. The Yaris on the other hand, which is built on the same platform, sits at the pointy end with a share of almost 13 per cent.
The reason is clear when you compare their price tags. The hybrid hatchback costs a hefty $23,990 in entry spec and $26,990 in i-Tech trim tested here, positioning it well above the Yaris, which starts at $14,990. It’s also significantly more expensive than the larger Corolla (from $19,990).
If you’re planning to offset the extra cost of the hybrid by saving on fuel, be prepared to be in it for the long haul. If you take the entry versions of the Prius C and Yaris, take their combined cycle fuel consumption figures (3.9 and 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres, respectively), and assume average annual mileage of 15,000km and an average fuel price of 160 cents per litre, the Prius C will cost $936 to fuel per year versus the Yaris at $1368. That means that if you purchased a Prius C over a Yaris today, it would take you 312,500km, or until June 2035, to break even.
Fortunately, the Prius C offers plenty more for your money to justify its higher price tag. The entry model comes standard with foglights, keyless entry, push-button start, climate control, cruise control, and a 6.1-inch colour touchscreen media system with reverse-view camera, voice control, USB port and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
For an additional $3000, the Prius C i-Tech gains 15-inch alloy wheels (the entry model gets steel 15s), LED headlights, privacy glass, auto-folding side mirrors, premium seats and upholstery, and satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates.
The really pricey hardware sits under the bonnet and beneath the floor. The Prius C’s hybrid powertrain – an upgraded version of the one used in the first two generations of the Prius – teams a 54kW/111Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder ‘Atkinson cycle’ petrol engine with a 45kW/169Nm electric motor and a nickel-metal-hydride battery.
Together they combine for 74kW, which is 11kW more than the base Yaris, though at 1140kg, the Prius C is 115kg heavier than its conventional-engined sibling.
The weight disadvantage doesn’t make it a slug, however. Torque from the electric motor is available instantly, so the Prius C feels as quick off the line as its city car rivals. Acceleration remains adequate up to highway speeds, though the engine is loud and coarse at high revs.
The automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) adds trademark drone to the Hybrid Synergy Drive symphony. It’s responsive off the line, though is slow to react to throttle inputs when you’re on the move.
If you’re (very) light on the throttle, or in reverse, the Prius C can bypass the engine and operate on battery power alone for up to 2km at low speeds. In EV Mode it’s near silent, save for some muffled electric whistles and groans, while the transition from electric to hybrid mode is seamless when the engine does kick in.
Selecting Eco Mode – which retards throttle response – and feathering the accelerator pedal is the best way to achieve fuel consumption close to Toyota’s 3.9L/100km claim.
The Prius C’s multi-information display screen in the mid-mounted instrument cluster makes it easy – and admittedly quite fun in an eco-nerdy kind of way – to track your consumption, presenting real-time information about where the hybrid system’s energy is flowing, how much money you’re saving in fuel, and giving you an Eco score out of 100 based on your driving style.
The best we saw on the trip computer was 4.0L/100km for a circa-15km suburban/city trip, though perhaps even more impressive was our worst result, 5.9L/100km, achieved during a more spirited drive.
The Prius C’s steering is particularly light and lacks a sense of connection with the road, though it’s also direct and predictable, which means you can point it without feedback and trust it to hold its line.
The ride is firm, with the extra weight of the hybrid hardware affecting its comfort levels and leading it to jitter over rough surfaces and jar into road joins and potholes. It’s much more settled over speed humps, however, where the suspension reacts much more gently.
The Prius C’s brakes have a grabby initial feel, but mercifully aren’t plagued by the wooden feel common among hybrids with similar regenerative systems, and deliver progressive pedal response.
The i-Tech’s cabin doesn’t look or feel as premium as its $27K price tag suggests. The standard white door plastics (which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea) feel cheap and flimsy and the rest of the plastics are of the hard and scratchy variety, save for a small soft-touch section on the dash.
The media screen looks like an aftermarket drop-in, and its graphics are dated compared to some fresher rivals. The indicators also lack one-touch repeaters, forcing you to physically cancel after quick lane changes.
The driver’s seat is comfortable, however, and there’s room in the back for two 180cm-tall passengers with just enough headroom and plenty of toe space. Clever packaging means there’s an abundance of storage spots in the front, including a deep glovebox, centre bin with armrest, cupholders and door bins, though it’s sparse in the back.
The Prius C’s 260-litre boot is just below average for its class, though its low loading lip makes piling in cargo a breeze, and 60:40 split rear seats add extra flexibility. Toyota also deserves credit for including a full-size alloy spare beneath the floor.
The Prius C is covered by Toyota’s three-year/60,000km capped-price servicing program. The first six services are fixed at $130 each, totalling $780.
The Toyota Prius C remains the most fuel-efficient car in its class, but the game has changed a lot since it arrived on the scene in early 2012. Then, 3.9L/100km was ground-breaking for a city car, while today it's merely impressive. Many petrol-powered rivals, including the Clio, Fiesta, Polo and Peugeot 208, now offer consumption below 5.0L/100km at considerably lower prices, not to mention better driving dynamics and higher quality cabins.
If your heart’s set on a hybrid, however, we recommend bargaining hard for a base model, or perhaps waiting for the all-new Honda Jazz Hybrid that’s due here next year.