The Toyota Prius has been the hybrid to beat for more than a decade, the vehicle that other hybrids strive to emulate. You only need to see the sales numbers for corroboration: the Prius perennially outsells all other hybrids combined by a two-to-one margin. But even with ten years of hybrid dominance by the Prius, hybrid sales remain just 3% of all U.S. vehicle sales.

It's a bit of an anomaly, then, that Toyota has recently begun to expand its hybrid offerings. The well-known Prius is still around, as is the Camry Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid, but they are now augmented by a growing Prius family: the Prius V (the bigger one), the Prius Plug-in (the regular-sized one that can store energy from an electric outlet), and the brand new Prius C (the little one).

In fact, if you hear the Toyota execs tell it, they fully expect this new Prius family to be the company's major source of growth over the next decade, eclipsing even the Camry in popularity. After driving the Prius C under a variety of different conditions, it seems likely that much of that growth will be due to this diminutive, affordable and fuel-efficient powerhouse of a car.

The Prius That Pays Back Faster

Where the conventional Prius has certainly had incredible success and found a niche as the green car to beat, the fact of the matter is that its hybrid premium (the extra cost associated with the hybrid system) takes a long time to recoup, even with the high gas prices we've experienced recently. But with a starting price of $18,950 and a city fuel economy of 53 mpg, the Prius C provides an economic reason to buy it from day one.

When sized up against comparably equipped cars in the subcompact class - such as the Chevy Sonic and Ford Fiesta - the Prius C will likely cover its approximately $1,000 premium in less than two years.

The base $18,950 Prius C One - the lowest of four available trim levels - includes niceties like intermittent wipers, automatic climate control, tilt/telescope steering wheel, power windows, vehicle stability control, traction control, ABS, tire pressure monitoring system, hill start assist, nine airbags, a vehicle proximity alert for parking and a four-speaker audio system with USB port, iPod compatibility, hands-free phone and Bluetooth audio streaming - not bad for a "base" model. The next step up - the Prius C Two, starting at $19,900 - adds two more speakers, variable intermittent wipers, a 60/40 split folding rear seat (the seat on the One trim level only folds down as one piece), cruise control, a center console and cargo area cover.

If scrimping every last bit of savings out of a car isn't your thing, and you prefer a few more creature comforts, the Prius C Three, starting at $21,635, adds some substantial upgrades including a smart key system with push button start and a 6 speaker, 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment/navigation system equipped with Toyota's Entune service with voice controls. Entune provides Internet services streamed from your smartphone (like web radio, movie tickets, dinner reservations, fuel prices and access to the Bing search engine). Starting at $23,230, the Prius C Four adds standard 15-inch alloy wheels with the option to upgrade to 16-inch wheels, fog lamps, heated front seats, heated outside mirrors and special SofTex trimmed front seating.

Fuel Economy Is Stellar (in the City)

At an EPA-estimated 53 mpg in the city, the Prius C, as Toyota likes to claim, gets the highest city fuel economy of any car in the U.S. without a plug - meaning to get higher fuel economy you'll have to use stored electricity. On the highway the Prius C delivers an estimated 46 mpg, which is why its combined fuel economy of 50 mpg is the same as the conventional Prius.

While many will wonder why Toyota couldn't squeeze better highway fuel economy out of a vehicle that's almost 20 inches shorter and 500 pounds lighter than the conventional Prius (which gets 48 mpg highway), according to Toyota the devil is in air resistance. Whereas the conventional Prius has the optimal shape to slice through the wind, the shortness of the Prius C is actually a disadvantage on the highway. The air turbulence created behind the hatchback is kind of like dragging a parachute around.

In any event, the Prius C was meant for urban duty and lower driving speeds (the "C" stands for "City"), and that's where it shines. Over the course of our day of driving we were able to average as high as 58 mpg during 35-45 mph city driving without too many stops, and overall achieved about 52 mpg in about 60% city / 40% highway driving.

Toyota is introducing a new multifunction display on the Prius C that allows you to enter in how much you're paying for gas and then it can tell you exactly how much you're paying per mile. It also allows you to enter in the mpg of a competing car (say your friends' Land Cruiser) and learn how much more that car would pay per mile over time. The company plans to roll this new display out to the other Priuses soon.

Good Handling, But It Won't Win Any Races

Over time the handling in the standard Prius has gotten much better, but it still rates as subpar when it comes to precise and emergency maneuvering. The Prius C, on the other hand, was designed to have a sportier feel, and it does. Partly due to its smaller size and partly due to a better tuned suspension, the Prius C felt nimble and well-balanced in both city and highway driving, although it does give up some ability to absorb road bumps in the process, creating a sometimes jarring ride.

With only 99 total system horsepower (the 1.5-liter gas engine makes up about 73 of those, the electric motor in the hybrid system provides the rest), the Prius C isn't going to win any races. Going uphill is an exercise in patience, and when stressed, the combination of CVT, noisy engine and electric motor makes a truly unpleasant sound. But fuel-efficiency fanatics may find this lack of power may be acceptable.

Exterior Design Works, Interior Needs Some Work

The Prius form factor may lead to some good aerodynamics, but it probably won't win any beauty contests. Yet on the Prius C those familiar headlights, bonnet, and grille fit in nicely. It's a cross between edgy and cute that seems to work well on the small four-door hatchback. From all angles we think the Prius C is one of the better-looking Toyotas to come down the pipe in some time.

Unfortunately the interior is a bit of a conundrum. The strange angular dash and console are not helped by a myriad of textures and hard plastic; from the steering wheel to the radio to the glove box, virtually every surface inside has a different texture, and it makes for a very busy and distracting cockpit.

But even with its questionable interior style, the Prius C seems destined for sales success. With Toyota's proven reliability, impressive city fuel economy, the functionality of a hatchback, and affordable entry price, the Prius C is the hybrid everybody can afford.

author photo

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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