Toyota’s Little Prius Passes the Gas Pump Test

C IS FOR CITY: This downsized Prius C is perfect for urban driving because it’s smaller than its older namesakes and consumes less gas than they do.
C IS FOR CITY: This downsized Prius C is perfect for urban driving because it’s smaller than its older namesakes and consumes less gas than they do.
GERRY MILES

Officially, the C in the Prius’ name stands for “city” where the smallest and most affordable, a.k.a. cheapest, edition of Toyota’s famed hybrid car line will provide the most dividends. Perhaps, though, it should be an “e” for economy for its EPA-rated 50 combined mpg, which is a prime reason many folks will buy one.

As the runt of the four-model Prius litter, the C is also the smallest and the least expensive ($19,080), but the C could also stand for the compromises needed to achieve that feat in this subcompact.

Compared to its larger, midsize Prius—the only car introduced at the 1997 NY Auto Show where a hall full of auto journalists actually went silent to hear its intro price, $19,995—the C is 19.1 inches shorter (157.3 in. vs. 176.4 in.) and 542 pounds lighter (2,500 lbs. vs. 3,042 lbs.) to achieve its fuel efficiency.

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That diet helps boost the fuel economy but it diminishes the C in several other ways:

The seats are supportive but relatively thin and best for short, city commutes and not visiting Aunt Bessie in Philadelphia. There’s a lot of low grade plastic on the dash. And the car doesn’t have a lot of oomph.

Bathed in 2014’s newest color, a retina-searing yellow called Sun Fusion, the C shows off a funky, wind-cheating design so common on many smaller cars today, a design that should appeal to young buyers but that doesn’t sacrifice the interior space often valued by older drivers.

The overall interior is clean, simple, and uncomplicated except for the number of options displayed on the information screen. The main dash features are centered, electronic, and display a myriad of the car’s functions as well as track your prudent pedal pushing with each trip. However, most controls are managed by touch screen, only the temperature and the other climate controls are adjusted with buttons.

There’s plenty of leg and head room upfront, less, as expected, in the back. The wedge shape of today’s cars leaves little cargo or head space for adults in the back. Although the hatch opens wide, this is a subcompact built to sip gas and not perform weekend duty as a cargo mule.

A spare tire is included, housed under a two-piece large foam-like structure underneath a trunk mat that comes with carpeted floor mats ($225) and a cargo net ($49). I wonder if the spare will be eliminated, as it has been in most cars these days, for an additional battery pack.

Power tops out at 99 horsepower with the 1.5-liter duel overhead cam (DOHC) that boasts variable valve timing, just like Toyota’s Yaris, but produces just 73 hp compared to the 106 hp in the Yaris. The Hybrid Drive is tucked into the engine well while the battery is optimally placed under the left rear seat for weight distribution.

Output can be regulated in three modes: Eco, Normal, and EV. To use the EV or battery mode, the shifter slides next to a large “B”. However, this mode requires that you drive under 25 mph at first if you want to get a mile on battery power alone.

Underway, the C is, as a certain coach is known to say, an economy car that’s not meant to leave behind rubber from its 15-inch wheels. Even during city commutes, the C’s motor protested too much when pressed for additional power before responding. At highway speeds the noise ratio rose, as did the wind noise and road noise. Passing a car becomes a planned event requiring time and distance. Merging onto the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover, NH, was a tad frightening as the automatic CVT tried to accumulate enough speed to stake out some pavement in the right lane before the upcoming traffic rushed upon the sawed-off hatch’s backside.

That said, when you can get 51 mpg, the C almost makes you want to slow down, watch the dashboard gas numbers rise, switch into Eco, and be as stingy as Silas Marner.

Some other qualities: Despite the thick steering wheel that’s meant to imply sturdiness and sportiness, the car’s handling is light. Braking is reasonable, not that you’ll go that fast, and returns power to the battery in its regenerative form, as shown on the dash’s display. The C’s diminutive size makes it easy to park in the city.

At a time when gas prices are still fluctuating, the C offers an entry-level price into the hybrid market from the famed Prius lineup. Going green usually costs about $5,000 more green backs than a conventional model in many car lines. You will have to consider whether the type of driving you do will yield the benefits you expect.

In comparison, the Yaris has nearly the same footprint as the C, more horsepower, a smaller suggested price that’s about $5,000 less, and still owns EPA numbers in the 30s. It’s nice to have options.

The Prius C meets its mission as an affordable, non-plug-in hybrid from the first family of hybrid technology. For a city commuter looking for maximum mileage and savings at the pump, the C is worth a look and a test drive.

2014 Toyota Prius C

THE BASICS

Price, base (with destination): $21,765 ($810); options: $743; as tested: $23,318.

Fuel economy: 53 mpg city/46 mpg highway; Globe observed: 51.0 mpg. Drivetrain: 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder, Hybrid Synergy Drive, automatic CVT. Body: Four-door hatch.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 73 hp. Torque: 82 lb.-ft. @ 1,850 rpm. Overall length: 157.3 in. Wheelbase: 100.4 in. Height: 56.9 in. Width: 66.7 in. Curb weight: 2,500 lbs.

THE GOOD

Not stopping at gas stations. Fuel economy. Rear hatch, folding seat augment cargo space. Spare tire.

THE BAD

Awful color, dash gauges too busy, thin seats.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A non-plug-in hybrid that meets its mission of providing superb economy for city commuters.

Also consider: Toyota Yaris, Scion iQ, Ford C-Max Energi, Honda CR-Z, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2.