It didn't take long for the 2014 Toyota Prius c to become one of Toyota's rising stars. Orders for the new pint-sized Prius exceeded expectations early on, transforming this projected bit player into a marquee attraction. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. After all, the Prius c gets the same overall fuel economy as the regular Prius -- an astounding 50 miles per gallon -- yet its base price is more than $5,000 lower.

Not surprisingly, the Prius c makes a few compromises relative to Prius norms. Because the structure comes from the short-wheelbase Yaris subcompact, it's not as refined as the standard Prius -- and it yields a firmer, bouncier ride. Moreover, road noise is elevated, and space for passengers and cargo is diminished. We'll also give big brother the nod for both exterior styling and cabin quality.

But the Prius c is certainly better at navigating tight spaces, and its handling feels more responsive, for those who care about such things. Plus, $5,000 is a lot of money, representing a discount of roughly 20 percent compared to the cheapest traditional Prius.

Overall, while the Prius c isn't a full Prius substitute, it's undoubtedly the cheapest way to hit the 50-miles-per-gallon milestone in a new car today. That's the formula that propelled the Prius c to instant stardom, and we expect it to maintain its appeal in these consumption-conscious times.

What's New for 2014?

The Prius c is unchanged for the 2014 model year.

What We Like

Stellar fuel economy; appealing price; hatchback convenience

What We Don't

Firm ride by Prius standards; ponderous acceleration

How Much?

$19,900-$24,000

Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Prius c is powered by a 1.5-liter gasoline inline 4-cylinder 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. But speed has never been the point of any Prius. And given that the Environmental Protection Agency rates the Prius c at a whopping 53 mpg city/46 mpg hwy (50 mpg in combined city and highway driving), we suspect most owners won't mind setting a leisurely pace.

Standard Features & Options

The 2014 Toyota Prius c subcompact hatchback comes in four trim levels: One, Two, Three and Four.

The entry-level One ($19,900) feels basic inside, though it does come with power accessories, automatic climate control (an unusual luxury at this price point), a 3.5-inch color display with a real-time power-flow diagram and a 4-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

Step up to the Two ($20,700) and you'll get six speakers for the stereo, variable intermittent wipers, 2-tone seat fabric with a driver-seat height adjustment, SofTex dashboard trim, a 60/40 split folding rear seat back (the One's rear seat back folds down in one piece), cruise control and a center console with an armrest.

The Three ($22,500) 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 ($24,000) tacks on fog lamps, 15-in alloy wheels (optional on Three), heated front seats and SofTex trim for the seats and steering wheel.

In terms of options, the Prius c doesn't have many. A sunroof can be added to either the Three or Four, and sunroof-equipped Fours are eligible for 16-in alloy wheels with a quicker steering ratio.

Safety

The Prius c comes with standard stability control, nine airbags and anti-lock brakes.

In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the Prius c received four overall stars out of five -- a rating composed of four stars in the frontal test, four stars in the side-impact test and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Prius c its highest rating of Good in all tested impact categories.

Behind the Wheel

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 don't do it any favors. It's not as quiet at cruising speeds, either. But while we unexpectedly found the steering too heavy (heavier still with the Four's optional 16-in wheels), it's reasonably precise for a car of this nature, and body roll is kept within acceptable limits. We also love the tiny turning circle, which makes U-turns a breeze. The regenerative brakes may feel strange if you're a hybrid novice, but you'll get used to their inconsistent feedback in time.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Insight -- Conceived as a Prius-fighter, we think the Insight might be a better match for the comparably priced Prius c. The Insight's back seat is inhospitable even compared to the c's, but we enjoy driving Honda's hybrid hatchback more.

Honda CR-Z -- If you don't need a back seat but could go for a more engaging drive, the 2-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 under $25,000 and comes well-equipped.

AutoTrader's Advice

We'd have to have push-button start, so put us down for a Prius c Three. That pushes the price past $22,000, but it gives you a lot of technology for the money.

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