Toyota virtually owns the hybrid sector of the market. Competitors from Europe, Asia and North America offer hybrids, but they are fighting for a piece of the action.
While Honda was the first to market a hybrid here, Toyota took the lead from the moment it introduced the Prius more than a decade ago. Since then it has sold four million hybrids globally, more than 26,000 of them in Canada.
Toyota and Lexus have on offer 10 different hybrid models spanning a price range of more than $100,000: Lexus - LS 600h L, $123,000; GS 450h $64,000; RX 450h, $57,000; HS, $41,000; Lexus CT 200h, $31,000; Toyota - Highlander hybrid, $43,000; Camry hybrid, $27,000; Prius V, $27,000; Prius, $26,000 and Prius C $21,000.
Toyota has this hybrid thing so nailed down it can create a hybrid out of pretty much any existing vehicle in its lineup. That list above include V-8, V-6 and four-cylinder engines, each paired with one or more electric motors, all integrated into the company’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system.
The last on that vehicle list, the Prius C, is the smallest, least expensive, latest to arrive and the subject of this review.
First sub-compact hybrid
The third member of the Prius family is loosely based on the Yaris and it has a different engine than the others. (It's also different from the Yaris Hybrid sold in Europe.)
As the first sub-compact hybrid on the market it was developed primarily for the urban environment. The five-door hatchback is 485-mm shorter, 50-mm narrower and 246-kg lighter than the now-traditional Prius.
Being smaller and lighter allowed it to use a smaller and lighter powertrain. Instead of the 98-horsepower, 1.8-litre gasoline engine and 80-hp electric motor used in the larger and heavier Prius and Prius V, the C uses a 73-horsepower 1.5-litre engine and a 60-hp electric motor for a combined output of 99-horsepower, compared to 134 for the Prius.
In case you think I failed math - you can’t just add the engine and motor peak power numbers as they produce peak power at different speeds.
Transport Canada says you can expect fuel consumption numbers as low as 3.5 L/100 km in the city. I say good luck with that.
It might be possible on a fine, wind-free day, on a perfectly flat surface with a very light foot and very low speeds – which is exactly the scenario in the laboratory where the numbers are generated. But in the real world, with hills, the need to keep up with traffic and often less than perfect conditions, not likely. I did manage 4.0 L/100 km – a the best yet in my experience!
Like its hybrid siblings, there are three driving modes selectable by a switch on the instrument panel – Eco, Normal and EV.
Eco mode blunts throttle inputs and minimizes air conditioning compressor use. You get the best fuel economy this way – but at the price of performance. An already slow automobile becomes terribly slow.
In EV mode, the car can be driven on electric power only for short distances and at low speeds.
I didn't bring a calendar with me so was unable to measures acceleration in Eco mode. In "normal" it takes more than 11.5 seconds to get to highway speeds from rest. Passing or climbing long hills requires lots of road and patience.
You might also want to turn up the audio system to mask the incessant droning noise from the engine as the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) keeps it buzzing at high revs.
Not only is the Prius C slow – it is soft. You can forget about entering it in any slalom competitions.
Performance is not the point
Enough of the bitching about performance. This is a hybrid and an extremely good one. People looking at this car typically don’t give a hoot about handling or all-out acceleration.
It's sought and bought because it is frugal, high tech and mere ownership broadcasts a concern about the environment. In conventional use around town it is in its element.
The front seats are roomy and supportive with plenty of room for a couple of big adults. Two more can fit in back if they are friends or prepared to become so.
Unfortunately the instrument panel is centered, making it necessary for the driver to take his or her eyes further off the road than advisable.
A 144-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack fits under the rear seat where it shares space with the fuel tank. The result, as is the case with most hybrids, is reduced trunk space. However, unlike most, the rear seat back can be folded down to increase that room.
The Prius C wears a Toyota badge so fit and finish and quality are impeccable. But the amount of visible painted metal and hard plastic surfaces is indicative of the drive to control costs.
By using many of the Yaris pieces, Toyota was able to keep the price in check despite the use of expensive drivetrain components and a battery pack.
The $21K "base" Prius C comes with an automatic transmission, automatic climate control, power windows and locks, tilt/telescope steering wheel, wireless connectivity, six-speaker audio system, power heated mirrors, cruise control, remote keyless entry and a 9-cm full color information screen so you can monitor how much fuel you are using - or saving. Nothing "base" about that list.
The bottom line, as always, is the bottom line. At $24,860, my tester is an expensive, albeit well-equipped and frugal, sub-compact car. But going green costs.
For $5,000 less you can get a similarly –equipped Yaris or any number of competitors. The Prius C will cost about $500 less per year to run according to federal fuel economy ratings and average annual use so it will take 10 years to recover that initial outlay.
The argument is, you will have produced far fewer harmful emissions during that time. As well as flaunting your green creds.