2012 Toyota Prius c first drive review: Smaller, but not on fuel economy

2012 Toyota Prius c

2012 Toyota Prius c

Toyota is expanding the Prius line, not as a separate line like Scion or Lexus, but as a sub-brand of Toyota. The latest addition, following on the basic Prius, now called the Hatchback, and the Prius V, a Hatchback with a taller back for more cargo capacity, is the Prius c.

2012 Toyota Prius c interior

The 2012 Toyota Prius c interior is plain to keep costs in line. (Click to enlarge image)

The Prius c is the compact Prius, at least respectively speaking. Toyota says the “c” stands for “city” and insists on it being lowercase. The c is smaller than the Prius Hatchback, a whopping 19 inches shorter overall. It’s not just a smaller car, but it’s a smaller car with a smaller engine and even better fuel economy than the “full-size” Prius Hatchback. And it costs less.

Toyota makes no bones about its size, noting that the car is more suitable for younger buyers with small children or no kids at all, anticipating a demographic of buyers in their 30s compared to the 50- to 60-year old Prius Hatchback owners. Indeed, the Prius C is a B-segment sedan, similar in size to the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and Toyota’s own Yaris.

The 2012 Toyota Prius c rear seat is snug for adults.

The 2012 Toyota Prius c rear seat is snug for adults. (Click to enlarge image)

Appropriately, however, the Prius c has a rear hatch to maximize utility. Toyota claims 17 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seat raised, but that’s mostly vertical and means stacking stuff, which not the best for schlepping groceries. The rear seatback folds (either full or 60/40, depending on trim level) for a not-flat floor, and although Toyota doesn’t claim a maximum cargo capacity, it’s easier load boxes of paper-diapers-bound-eventually-for-a-landfill.

At least the front seats are sized for adults—grownups will fit in back though not for long periods—though they’re hardly captain’s chairs and bolstering is modest. As one might expect from a Prius, the main instrument panel, such that is it, is under a nacelle atop the dash while a color multi-information screen dominates the center of the dash, put there for multiple ways to monitor the ways the Prius C is saving gas and the world from carbon dioxide. But more about that latter later.

The 2012 Toyota Prius C has a monoform exterior shape with a steeply sloping hood, similar enough to the Prius Hatchback that it went largely unnoticed on our drive around West Palm Beach. From a practical standpoint, the short overhang front and rear allows more room within the wheelbase for people and stuff, but despite the long-for-a-B-segment wheelbase, the turning circle with the standard 15-inch tires is a mere 31.7 feet for the ultimate urban maneuverability. That’s compared to 29 feet for the Smart for2, which is a small A-segment two-seater. With the optional 16-incvh wheels, the Prius C has a more-ordinary 37.4 feet.

The small size of the Toyota Prius c meant that the 1.8-liter engine/drivetrain used in the Prius Hatchback and Prius V wouldn’t fit physically, so Toyota adapted an existing 1.5-liter engine, converting it to Atkinson cycle operation, connecting it to a revised and downsized Toyota Synergy Hybrid powertrain.

2012 Toyota Prius c 1.5-liter engine

The 1.5-liter engine of the 2012 Toyota Prius c is just small enough to fit under the hood. (Click to enlage image)

For the tech inclined, the engine has cooled exhaust gas recirculation and exhaust heat recirculation. The latter is used to heat the engine coolant, particularly useful when the ambient outdoor temperature is low. It reduces time for the engine to reach normal operating temperature—where it’s cleanest and most efficient—and when the engine can stop for the vehicle is operating in electric-only mode. Toyota also claims it shrinks time to warm air from the heater by a minute…which means a lot when it’s really cold outside.

Toyota increased the Prius c engine’s economy by eliminating accessory drive belts, instead powering the air conditioning compressor and engine water pump by electric motor, which not only reduces parasitic drag when the items aren’t needed, but also allows cabin heating and cooling to continue while the engine is stopped.

Although full-hybrid operation like that of the larger Prius models is used, an all-new transaxle (dubbed “P510” for those keeping score) was developed from the existing transaxle. Though a continuously-variable ratio unit, the transaxle doesn’t use the steel belt/pulley system but rather planetary gearsets, which Toyota says has less friction and therefore improved economy. The transaxle is smaller in size and incorporates a 60 horsepower electric drive motor to complement the 73-horsepower (“1NZ-FXE”) gasoline engine. Torque ratings, incidentally, are 82 lb-ft for the gas engine and 124.6 lb-ft from the electric motor.