Road Test: Toyota's Prius C subcompact

Prices for the Prius C start at $18,950.

Prices for the Prius C start at $18,950. (Credit: Bloomberg News)

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With just about any new consumer product, being in the right place at the right time often can mean the difference between success and failure.

That's probably going to be the case for the all-new 2012 Toyota Prius C hybrid subcompact, which went on sale in the United States on March 12, just as gasoline prices were hitting three-year highs.

Toyota sold 1,201 of the cars in its first three days on the market, and it has already ordered the Japanese factory to step up production to meet an apparently higher-than-expected consumer demand.

EPA ratings for the C -- which stands for "city" -- are 53 mpg city/46 highway, with an average of 50. Prices begin at $18,950 before freight and run as high as $23,320 for the top model.

Surprisingly, this little vehicle was roomy enough to hold four people quite comfortably, along with a decent amount of cargo behind the rear seat. The cargo area is accessed through a lift-up rear hatch. Toyota put the car's nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery and fuel tank below the rear seat, allowing the interior to have 104 cubic feet of space.

Even the base model comes with such standard amenities as automatic climate control; tilt-telescopic steering wheel with controls for audio, climate, driver's info display and Bluetooth; power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote; and illuminated entry, among others.

With the Bluetooth connection, I was able to hook up my iPhone and stream my iTunes music through the great dash audio system.

Another surprise was just how much power this little hybrid has. It comes with a 1.5-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine with 73 horsepower and 82 foot-pounds of torque, combined with a 60-horsepower electric motor. Not all of the combined power is available at the same time, but maximum output is 99 horsepower, which pushes this 2,500-pound car along quite nicely.

Engine and battery power are distributed to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission, which was smooth throughout its range.

Toyota said that the first three days of sales for the C eclipsed the entire month of February's sales of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf combined. Of course, the Prius C costs a whole lot less than the plug-in hybrid Volt (base price $40,000) and all-electric Leaf ($35,000 before a federal tax credit).

The C's electric power steering is tight and predictive, giving it a sporty feel. We took it on some curvy country roads, and the car felt right at home in the tight turns. The ride was surprisingly well-cushioned, too.



BASE PRICE: (excluding destination charge): $18,950


GASOLINE ENGINE: 1.8 liter, 4-cylinder DOHC

POWER: 98 horsepower at 5,200 rpm

EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 53 mpg city; 46 mpg highway

WHEELBASE: 106.3 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,042 pounds

CARGO VOLUME: 21.6 cubic feet

BOTTOM LINE: Fun to drive and economical, but backseat is too tight for three adults.

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