Toyota is breaking out the cigars after the unveiling of its new subcompact baby--the Prius c--ahead of its official birth at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show in January. When it goes on sale next year, the Prius c will be the fourth addition the ever-expanding Prius family of hybrids which now includes the base Prius, the Prius v, and the Plug-In Prius.

Said to achieve better than 52 miles per gallon in the city, the subcompact hybrid will have the best fuel efficiency of any non-electric car on-sale in the United States. Toyota officials have also indicated the car will be the most affordable hybrid on the road.

"We are trying to bring the Prius c in as close to or under $20,000 as possible," Moe Durand, Toyota Prius Communications, told AutoTrader.com on the sidelines of the 2011 LA Auto Show last week. "However, with the Yen trading like it is, getting it here for under $20,000 may be difficult."

At 157 inches long the Prius c is only a bit larger than Toyota?s conventional subcompact Yaris. The c will be powered by a 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine paired with the company?s Hybrid Synergy Drive. Although it is smaller and lighter than the base Prius, and has a smaller engine, the c won?t deliver fuel economy much higher than its larger sibling.

As Durand told us, the smaller a car gets the more drag it produces in its wake, and try as they might, the Toyota engineers couldn?t make the c any more slippery. In fact, the larger base Prius has a better coefficient of drag than the Prius c because it produces less turbulence in its wake.

As a four-door hatch, the c offers decent functionality even with its tiny footprint. According to Toyota, the c will come standard with Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, and nine airbags. Optionally, customers will also be able to add Toyota?s new Entune infotainment system, which can be used to make dinner reservations, buy movie tickets, stream Internet radio, and conduct Internet searches through a user?s mobile phone.

Clearly the new Prius c will be a strong contender in the growing subcompact market, but with less expensive competitors such as the Chevy Sonic and Ford Fiesta around, it remains to be seen just how important the Prius c?s incredible fuel economy will be to subcompact buyers.

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Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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