The pint-sized Prius C has certainly made an impression. Not just with buyers, but with many motoring writers who have previously been a touch cynical about the performance and dynamic qualities of hybrid cars. Or lack thereof.
The appeal to buyers is easy to quantify. Prius is a real hero brand for those keen to make an environmental statement and this new model – larger than a Yaris supermini, much smaller than the familiar Prius hatchback – is now officially New Zealand’s cheapest petrol-electric car.
It’s cheap full-stop, actually: an entry price of $30,990, rising to just $34,990 for the bells-and-whistles s-Tech version. So for a little more than a conventional small-car you can embrace futuristic powertrain technology and the potential for fuel economy of 3.9 litres per 100km.
The Prius C has turned more than one of my hardened, cynical colleagues towards the hybrid cause. Not to mention my good self. Why? That’s a harder one to work out. It’s partly the price, partly the endearing styling – which still shouts ‘hybrid’, as it must to attract image-conscious greenies. Perhaps the fact that it’s smaller, lighter and therefore a whole lot more fun to drive than the Prius hatchback.
The Prius C is affordable because Toyota is really good at this stuff: it’s been making mainstream hybrids for 12 years now. Another reason is that the C delves into the parts bin where it can: platform from the Yaris, powertrain from the previous Prius hatchback.
The 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine and electric motor produce a combined 74kW. To drive, it works exactly like the larger Prius. It’s slower, for sure, and the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) whines annoyingly when you put your foot down, but the Prius C still has a much more nimble feel than its bigger brother.
Another advantage of having less mass to haul is that the Prius C will power away from a standstill on electric power only with ease. The bigger Prius can do that too of course, but often requires some gentle accelerator work because there’s more weight to shift.
In fact, the Prius C will tootle (it’s definitely a car that likes to ‘tootle’) along at 40km/h on electric power pretty easily, albeit only for a couple of kilometres before the power is depleted. More if you can take advantage of coasting and careful braking to recharge the battery.
It’ll hit 100km/h in less than 12 seconds, which is a long way from fast but not terrible for a small car.
Make no mistake, the Prius C still suffers from the usual hybrid foibles. The steering is lifeless, the chassis turgid and the brakes wooden, labouring as they do with regenerative hardware to recharge the battery pack. But none of this is fatal to the C’s mission of being an enjoyable runabout with ultra-green credentials.
I even quite like the kooky interior style, which is very much a Prius thing. It’s high on style, although a bit short on storage space and almost completely devoid of soft plastic.
The lower-end s-Tech version has a bizarre flouro green/blue trim-line along the passenger side of the cabin. That’s perhaps reason enough to step up to the s-Tech, which has less-lurid trim and little luxuries like synthetic leather seat upholstery (at least they’re honest), LED lights, upgraded trim and 16-inch alloy wheels.
But even the base car gets keyless entry/start, climate control air conditioning, cruise control and Bluetooth.
If you’re confused about there being more than one Prius… well, that’s exactly what Toyota wants. It’s hell-bent on making Prius a brand rather than just a car, although it’s still happy to count them all as one model when it comes to global sales.
For the record, they’re not. The Prius C is a different car from the Prius hatchback, which now sits in the middle of the range, because there’s also an economy-sized version known as Prius V, which has cleverly packaged lithium-ion batteries that liberate people-mover levels of space and versatility.
Despite some shared components, all three are unique vehicles that compete in different segments. A Prius C is different from a Prius hatch in the same way that a Volkswagen Polo is different from a Golf.
It still has so many hybrid foibles, but I really enjoyed driving the Prius C. As I write this there’s a Prius V in the driveway, which you’ll read about at a later date. But I’m quite impressed by that too.
The C is cheap, the V seems practical and strangely devoid of pretension. Prius is changing.