In its ongoing efforts to bring hybrid cars into the mainstream, Toyota has introduced the value-priced 2012 Toyota Prius C.

Smaller than a regular Prius and with better fuel economy, the Prius C can get better than 50 miles per gallon and has a starting price under $20,000. That's a winning combination in these frugal times.

Of course, there are some trade-offs. The Prius C takes a hit in the power department, and its Yaris-based suspension gives a ride quality that's not up to the usual Prius standards.

But keep in mind that, the letter "C" in the Prius C stands for "city." So it's easy to park, turns on a dime and has hatchback convenience for shopping trips. But it might not be so good on those long hauls.

In typical Prius fashion, the Prius C's four trims are numbered -- in this case, One, Two, Three and Four.

The One feels pretty basic, but don't discount the One's power accessories, automatic climate control and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

But the Entune smart phone-based mobile app interface in the Three or Four is really way too cool to pass up. Using your smart phone data connection, you can send mobile apps to the car's touchscreen interface. We also like the push-button start, and you have to step up to at least the Three for that.

One thing that really surprised us: the back seat. There's a lot more room than we expected -- it's just a little tight on the knees.

The Prius C is not a pocket rocket by any stretch. For a vehicle weighing just 2,500 pounds, it's pretty darned slow.

But speed is not the point here. Its hybrid system combines a 73 horsepower 1.5-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine with a 60 horsepower electric motor and a nickel-metal hydride battery. Altogether you get just 99 horsepower going to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Not a lot of power but some pretty awesome fuel economy.

And for that, the Prius C gets top marks. Its EPA city rating tops the regular Prius by a couple of miles per gallon. And there's an EV mode that let's you drive using just the electric motor at very low speeds.

The low pricing works for us, too. The Prius C One starts at just $18,950. Move up to the top-of-the-line Four and the price rises to just over $23,000 -- a little less than the base price of the regular Prius.

And there are no worries about the hybrid-related components. They and the high-voltage battery are covered by a generous 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

The 2012 Toyota Prius C may not have as smooth a ride as the bigger Prius and Prius V, but it's definitely economical. This is a car that puts the word "affordable" right in front of the word "hybrid," making the low overall cost of ownership a big plus for any budget-conscious motorist.

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Scott Markle is an experienced automotive enthusiast and industry observer who is passionate about creating compelling content for car shoppers. He has fifteen years of experience building top-tier websites for the automotive industry and beyond, and was part of the team that launched AutoTrader.com.

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