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2018 Prius c: Suited for the City

By Ted Orme

Car critics have their favorites. So when I recently got the chance to review a few more new models, I was aware that the first one up, the little hybrid Prius c, was not one of my preferred rides, to put it mildly. When I last reviewed this model for Street Dreams December 2013) shortly after its introduction in 2012 I titled it a “High MPG Driving Appliance” that was high on thrift and low on fun.

My Prius negativity has only been made worse by following their hyper-miling drivers down the road under the speed limit or dodging clueless Prius pilots in parking lots. Would my impressions change this time around?

I’m afraid not. Aside from some minor trim, safety and infotainment upgrades, there is simply not enough improvement to win me over. That’s not to say the c doesn’t make for a good car for the city, which is what the c stands for. But the lower case italic c seems to say even Toyota is not ready to promote this model with a capital “C.”

The bottom feeder of the Prius line in both price and size, the 5-passenger, 5-door subcompact hatchback c is based on the tiny Yaris, not the larger Prius. It weighs in at a mere 2,500 pounds (500 pounds lighter than the Prius Liftback), and is powered by a wee 1.5-liter inline-4 and an AC synchronous electric motor that gives up a combined 99 horsepower.

The result is an EPA rating of 48 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 46 mpg combined, which is good but not great when compared with the competition (the Hyundai Ioniq is rated at 55 mpg combined and the Kia Niro Touring at 51 mpg combined) or even the larger, 121 horsepower Prius at 52 mpg combined. The just announced all-wheel-drive 2019 Prius beats the c with a rating of 50 mpg combined.

For my week in the c I only got 42.2 mpg in mostly short trips. Less than EPA’s numbers because I seldom used the Eco mode, which reduces overall energy consumption by governing climate control and throttle, or the EV mode that allows the c to be driven solely by electric power for a about a mile while remaining below 25 mph.  

This car, mated to gearless CVT is so slow that I wanted full power full time. But even in Normal mode, you’ve got to have a lead foot to stay out of trouble in DC’s chaotic traffic. As I said before, the c may be the slowest car I’ve driven since the Yugo.

Add to that the mind numbing moan of the tiny four banger as it struggles to build and keep speed, a choppy ride thanks to a short wheelbase (100.4 inch), harsh reaction to rough pavement and still bland steering input and the c doesn’t make for great driving dynamics.

In its favor, however, the Prius c’s small size is easy to park and, for most drivers, nimble enough to play dodgem in city traffic. A well-modulated brake pedal is also much improved over the earlier c I drove, and light weight means shorter stops. The hybrid integration between gas and electric is pretty smooth and among the best of any hybrid I have driven.

I must admit, after a week in the c I was getting comfortable with its shortcomings. The cozy cabin offers comfortable seating for four and a squeeze for five and ample cargo room with the rear 60/40 split rear seatback folded. Interior materials and amenities are better than you would expect from a budget-friendly subcompact, and the digital readouts on the 3.5-inch display were easy to see and understand. There are also Bluetooth hands-free controls, USB port with iPod connectivity, and available Display Audio system with Navigation and Entune for the target young urbanite buyers. For 2018, the Prius c gets what Toyota says is “a new crossover-inspired design” that includes the addition of black cladding on the side rocker, wheel arch moldings and roof rails that are complemented by front and rear, silver-accented lower body guards and a color-keyed rear spoiler

Some active safety equipment has also been added as standard, including forward-collision warning with automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beams, and now mandatory backup camera. But no blind side warning, which I regard as one of the most useful safety features.

Base price for the well-equipped c “three” (there are four grades) I tested was $22,855, plus a $700 moonroof and $895 delivery fee for a total sticker of $24,460.  That’s a good price for a hybrid. But for thousands less, you can find a lot more fun in several non-hybrid subcompacts that now regularly deliver 40 mpg or more.

For a lot of people, like my neighbor Robin, it’s all about your carbon footprint. She’s a confirmed hybrid buyer who says she will replace her 2009 Prius (pictured above with the c) with another hybrid or electric vehicle.

I won’t stand in her way but I cannot recommend the Prius c. It’s time for Toyota to come up with way more than a “refresh” for this aging city ride.

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