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Car reviews - Toyota - Prius C - i-Tech 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Economy, size, affordability, equipment levels, steering, handling, ease of driving, manoeuvrability, low emissions
Room for improvement
Vinyl seat trim, cold hard dash design, CVT drone, dreary performance, bland styling

Toyota logo8 Jun 2012

JAPAN has gone Prius mad, with the Toyota Prius C currently the hot ticket item in the Land of The Rising Sun.

The new baby Prius has been selling up a storm in its home market as keen-to-be-seen-to-be-green city slickers, singles and empty nesters have been going gaga for a piece of the petrol-electric hybrid pie. Supply simply cannot meet demand.

When flagged by a bold concept car at a couple of international motor shows last year, the idea of a smaller Prius-like hybrid had us excited.

However, the production version looked nowhere near as cool when presented at the 2011 Tokyo motor show.

We drove a Prius C i-Tech, the more expensive of Toyota’s two-pronged hybrid assault on the Australian light-car market.

It is priced at $26,990 plus on-roads and includes sat-nav with traffic update info, alloys, LED headlights with washers, powered retractable exterior mirrors, and a bigger back spoiler, while the entry-level model kicks off from $3K less – a fraction of what the original Prius retailed for over a decade ago, thanks to the car being Yaris-based.

Anybody familiar with the last two generations of the Toyota light car will find the interior immediately familiar.

Unashamedly lightweight in look as well as feel, the upper section combines the original Prius’s information display with the digital instrumentation pioneered by the Echo back in 1999, while the lower part of the dash is very much current-generation Yaris in its textures and asymmetry.

Almost everything is stupendously straightforward to fathom and follow, from the simple automatic climate-control system with its big temperature button to the logical touchscreen audio and GPS screen that sits bang in the centre of the fascia.

After quickly getting comfortable with an excellent driving position, it takes some time to work out the various vehicular and driving display windows on offer – including an eco score, instant and long-term consumption habits, and even a screen suggesting how much money you’re burning on fuel according to your bad driving habits.

Way to keep your eyes off the road, Toyota!

Small but firm seats – finished in a cold and clammy vinyl the company outrageously dubs ‘premium trim’ – provide sufficient if not outstanding support the ventilation system works brilliantly fast, and there are heaps of storage options.

The Prius C is aimed at hipsters, so perhaps they’ll forgive the myriad of clashing and contrasting plastics invading the door cards and dash top. The circa-’98 Daihatsu Sirion-style painted silver trim is particularly vile.

Of more concern is the protruding glovebox area, which invades the knee space of longer-legged passengers.

Yet there are pleasing details among the visual mess, such as a pleasant watermelon-shaped four-spoke steering wheel, the fake yet uplifting double-stitching, the clarity of the slim-font digital speedo and the lightweight overall ambience.

Considering the fact that the rear occupants are sitting above the nickel-metal hydride battery pack and fuel tank, there’s ample interior space for a compact car with such a sloping roofline.

The Prius C provides deep side windows that retract almost all the way to add to the airy feeling inside, as well as four overhead grab handles, but the back seat occupants must fight over the single acrobatically engineered cupholder and map seat pocket. There are no door pockets or folding centre armrest, and the centre spot isn’t very comfortable, either.

For a tiny hybrid, the 260-litre boot is quite useful, thanks in part to a sizeable hatch aperture and a flat floor that surprisingly encloses a full-sized spare.

Folding the split/fold rear seats – a first in a Prius – extends the cargo area considerably, while the backrests have child-seat tether restraints so they don’t have to eat into the available luggage area.

Performance is a little disappointing, lacking the oomph we’ve come to expect from a light car with two powerplants – in this case a 54kW/111Nm 1.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder petrol engine and AC synchronous 540V 45kW/169Nm electric motor from the previous-generation Prius.

Though the Prius C has an EV mode that blunts throttle and air-conditioning responses, the pure electric driving range is just two kilometres at speeds below 40km/h, after which the petrol engine seamlessly takes over.

As with other Prius models sold in Australia, there is no plug-in charging the engine uses regenerative braking and other energy recovery methods to replenish the battery.

Clearly, the car is tuned for economy. Acceleration is quite leisurely to begin with, and things do not really improve beyond that, with a delay between pressing the pedal and pressing on. Mid-range pick-up responses, even at speed, could be better.

The tried and tested continuously variable transmission (CVT) must take some of the blame for this. It isn’t very likeable, despite an undeniably smooth character when putting along, since it displays all the classic droning and delay traits that we’ve come to loathe from CVTs over the years.

But that’s no excuse. Don’t forget, the Prius C is competing against small yet torquey turbo-diesels like the Polo TDI and Fiesta TDCi.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is heavy for a light car, tipping the scales at 1140kg in i-Tech guise. Maybe that’s why we couldn’t really exceed more than a kilometre in pure EV guise.

Official combined fuel consumption is 3.9L/100km – which is no better than the larger regular Prius – and we regularly dipped below an indicated 4.8L/100km, so there is no denying the Prius C is economical.

What did shock us is steering that is light and sweet, with more feel and finesse than we were anticipating.

This combined with a chassis that is eager to change direction while remaining flat and composed, so keener drivers will find a lot to like in the Prius C’s handling characteristics.

Just for fun we drove the tiny eco Toyota flat-out over a rough and ragged mountain track in blinding rain, only to come away impressed with the unflappable levels of roadholding and grip.

Indeed, we grew so confident with the balance and tune of the stability control system that soon uphill corners were being taken flat out. There wasn’t much power available, but the Prius C ploughed along with determination.

You could describe the ride as a bit firm and bouncy on the smaller bumps found around town, yet settled and absorbent over larger humps and such. It’s a classic case of hearing more than feeling the suspension work beneath you.

And the brakes did not display the usual hybrid characteristic of feeling wooden and unnatural (though they can become ‘snatchy’ at very low speeds, biting too hard), so that’s another bonus point. Retardation happens rapidly, if not always 100 per cent smoothly.

The further we drove, the more we came to respect and appreciate what the Prius C offers.

While we’re not exactly bowled over by the value, the littlest Toyota hybrid is a unique proposition in the baby-car class, and is $6000 cheaper than the larger but flawed Honda Insight.

If making a statement as inexpensively as possible about cutting emissions is your automotive goal, the Prius C might be your cup of green tea, but if you want to save money on fuel and love driving, choose one of the Euro diesels instead.

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