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2012 Toyota Prius C

2012 Toyota Prius C
2012 Toyota Prius C Wheelbase Media

The most popular gasoline-electric hybrid brand around is now a lineup unto itself and the all-new Toyota Prius c is the smallest and least expensive of the bunch.

With fuel costs soaring, it’s likely that hybrid demand will accelerate in spite of a continued price gap compared to gasoline-only vehicles. That’s good news for Toyota’s four-model Prius line and especially good news for the new Prius c (c is for compact).

Although small in stature — 19 inches shorter and about two inches narrower than the current Prius hatchback — the Prius c comes up big in minimizing fuel consumption, registering 53 mpg in the city and 46 highway. By comparison, the regular Prius’s numbers are 51/48.The combined city/highway number for both is 50 mpg.

So exactly what advantage does the smaller Prius c hold over its equally thrifty namesake? Actually, there are exactly 5,050 of them, which is the difference, in dollars that distinguish the two Toyotas. The c’s on-the-road base tariff is $19,710, placing it well within reach for many buyers and, for example, is only about $2,800 pricier than a Toyota Corolla and only slightly more than the Honda Insight hybrid.

Another aspect of the Prius c’s desirability is its blend of attractive styling and practical hatchback shape. The car exudes a certain cheerful exuberance that’s absent in the both the bigger hatch and wagon editions. The front end does carry traces of Toyota’s Yaris entry-hatch, but overall the “c” is pleasing. And other than a steeply sloping roofline that might discourage tall types from accessing the rear portals, there’s a generous (for its sub-compact-ness) amount of usable storage space, either with the split-folding back seat in the up or folded-flat position.

The rest of the interior is straightforward, other than what must be the most unusual dash/control panel layout ever designed. The upper-level speedometer, fuel gauge and optional electric power display is askew of the steering wheel, while the infotainment screen and ventilation settings are enveloped by oddly-formed plastic trim. Love it or otherwise (that will probably depend on your age), the dashing dash will likely become a spirited conversation/debate initiator.

There’ll also be much to discuss when the talk turns to the c’s mechanicals. The hybrid powertrain consists of a 73-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine coupled to a 60-horsepower (45-kilowatt) electric motor. The net combined output is a scant 99 horsepower (compared to 134 horses for the Prius family’s hybrid system). That’s sufficient to motivate the little 2,500-pound c, but with precious little in reserve when fully loaded and/or traveling up steep hills. The transmission is a continuously variable unit.

Both the electric motor’s 144-volt battery pack and fuel tank are positioned beneath the rear seat to maximize interior space and lower the c’s center of gravity for better weight distribution and road holding.

As with other Prius models, the c’s driver can switch between Normal, Eco and EV operation. The Eco mode takes some of the starch out of the standard throttle and climate-control settings to save energy, while EV mode allows the car to run solely on electric power for a short distance (less than a mile at less than 25 mph), making it ideal for typical work commutes and other going-nowhere-fast situations.

Toyota offers the Prius c in four trim levels, named, cleverly enough, One, Two, Three and Four. The lowest-numerical model comes with climate control, tilt-telescopic steering wheel plus the usual power-operated features. From there, content (and pricing) increases to include everything from heated front seats, keyless start and a moonroof to a premium sound and navigation system.

With the Prius c’s launch — as well as the launch of the plug-in model and the larger v wagon — Toyota is showing its continuing dominance in the hybrid category by stretching the brand to fit a broader audience. The c is the first, however, to truly challenge entry-level gas-only models on their own turf — which is pricepoint — while providing significantly better economy.