Pros: Stellar fuel economy; hatchback convenience; surprisingly serviceable back seat

Cons: Firm ride by Prius standards; ponderous acceleration

The all-new 2012 Toyota Prius c is the Prius for folks who don't want to spend $25,000 plus for one. Yes, that's right: the once affordable regular Prius has been creeping up the price charts, and these days it's unusual to see one on a dealer lot for less than high $20,000s. Toyota understands the allure of the Prius's incredible 50-mpg fuel economy, but it knows people aren't necessarily going to pay through the nose just to spend less on gas. So-drumroll, please-enter the Prius c, Toyota's Yaris-based solution to the pricing problem.

The Prius c is supposed to offer the fuel economy folks want at a price they can afford, and we'd say it delivers on both fronts. Check it out: the c gets the same 50 mpg overall as the regular Prius, and it starts at well under $20,000. But there are caveats. For one thing, the Prius c's Yaris underpinnings don't do its ride quality any favors. Also, the Prius c has considerably less power than the Prius, so it's even slower despite its lighter weight.

Nonetheless, the 2012 Prius c mostly delivers on the promise of the Prius badge at considerable savings. Toyota is leading the charge toward the hybridization of our highways, and the Prius c seems to be a worthy addition to the family.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Prius c comes in four trim levels named One, Two, Three and Four. The entry-level One feels pretty basic inside, although it does come with power accessories, automatic climate control (an unusual luxury under $20,000), a 3.5-inch color display with a real-time power-flow diagram and a four-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Step up to the Two, and you'll get six speakers for the stereo, variable intermittent wipers, two-tone seat fabric with driver's-seat height adjustment, a 60/40 split folding rear seatback (the One's rear seatback folds down in one piece), cruise control and a center console with an armrest. The Three adds voice command recognition, a navigation system, the Entune smartphone-based mobile app interface and keyless entry/ignition with push-button start (lesser models have a traditional twist key). The Four tacks on foglamps, 15-inch alloy wheels (optional on Three), heated front seats and SofTex stain-resistant upholstery. A sunroof can be added to either the Three or the Four, and the Four is also eligible for 16-inch alloy wheels with a quicker steering ratio.

We genuinely like the One model's front seats, which have fixed headrests and surprisingly noticeable side bolsters-they remind us of those cool children's game-room chairs that sit flush with the floor, although we wish the steering wheel telescoped out farther. The other seat types are more conventional, but they do include a driver's-seat height adjustment, which the base seats lack. Although the Prius c's dashboard isn't spaceship swoopy like the regular Prius's, we definitely appreciate the huge, no-nonsense temperature knob that juts toward the driver on its own private promontory, falling readily to hand. The digital gauges and hybrid system displays will be familiar to any Prius veteran, and newbies can acclimate to them in a short time. Interior materials are a clear cut below those in the regular Prius, although at least the c's hard plastics have a variety of different grains to keep things visually interesting. The back seat, however, is a very pleasant surprise. A lanky six-foot editor folded himself in and found ample head and foot room, even if knee space was at a premium.

Toyota only quantifies the cargo space behind the back seat, which measures 17.1 cubic feet or about the size of a large sedan's trunk. If our calculations are correct, that means there should be somewhere around 35 cubic feet available with the rear seatbacks folded. Not much, you might be thinking, but look at it this way: that's two large sedan trunks. In a car this small, with a battery pack tucked under the rear seat cushion, no less, we think that's pretty impressive.

Technology

We like that iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity are standard even on the One model, but we have a bone to pick with the standard twist-key ignition. In such a high-tech car, we'd like to see push-button start come standard as on the regular Prius. It's an odd sensation to twist the key and receive no mechanical feedback whatsoever-you just see a "ready" light illuminate next to the speedometer. We're accustomed to that with buttons, but not with keys.

Also, there's a circular dummy depression on the dash where the button would be, forever reminding you that you didn't ante up for at least the Prius c Three.

Otherwise, the Prius c has a strong array of technology, as you'd expect. The big news is the new Entune system, which uses your smartphone's data connection (check with your Toyota dealer for a list of compatible phones) to send mobile apps straight to the Prius c's touchscreen interface. The app roster includes Pandora Internet radio and OpenTable dining services. It's nifty, if your smartphone's data plan can handle the extra usage.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Prius c is powered by a 1.5-liter gasoline inline-4 engine and an electric motor teamed with a battery pack. Total output is 99 horsepower, which isn't much in a car that weighs 2,500 pounds. Not only is the Prius c slow, it also emits a distinctive moo at full throttle that might have you wondering why you never noticed that cow pasture before.

But speed has never been the point of any Prius, and given that the EPA rates the Prius c at a whopping 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway, we suspect most owners won't mind keeping a leisurely pace. Like every Prius, by the way, the Prius c is a dual-mode hybrid, which means the electric motor can operate on its own under light-load situations. Don't get too excited about EV mode, though; it's barely distinguishable from driving the Prius c normally. Give it a smidge too much throttle, and the gas engine automatically rumbles to life.

Safety

The Prius c comes with standard stability control, nine airbags, and ABS. Crash test results were not available as of this writing.

Driving Impressions

The Prius c doesn't have the smooth ride of the regular Prius; they're different cars underneath, and the Prius c's Yaris genes apparently aren't doing it any favors. It does stay fairly quiet at cruising speeds, though, and while we unexpectedly found the steering a bit too heavy (it's even heavier with the Four's optional 16-inch wheels), it's reasonably precise for a car of this nature. We loved the tiny turning circle, which makes U-turns a breeze. The regenerative brakes may feel strange to hybrid novices, but you'll get used to their inconsistent feedback in time.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Insight - We think the Insight, conceived as a Prius fighter, might be best matched up with the comparably priced Prius c. The Insight's back seat is inhospitable even compared with the c's, but we enjoy driving Honda's hybrid hatchback a bit more.

Honda CR-Z - If you don't need a back seat but could go for a more engaging drive, the two-seat CR-Z is about the only game in town, delivering superior dynamics (and considerably worse fuel economy) for similar money.

Toyota Prius - If the Prius c doesn't seem like enough, keep in mind that the regular Prius starts at about $24,000 and comes very well equipped.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd have to have push-button start, so put us down for a Prius c Three. It offers a lot of technology for the money.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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