Car reviews - Toyota - Prius C - i-Tech
Fuel economy, nifty hybrid system, easy to drive, would make a great first car for an L or P-plater
Room for improvement
Tinny build feel, sparse and cheap interior, lacklustre performance, boring driving dynamics, price in segment
Toyota’s Prius C i-Tech hybrid light hatch makes for a solid but uninspiring first car
20 Feb 2019
Toyota’s Prius C hybrid light hatch landed in Australia in 2012, lowering the point of entry to its Prius range by $10,000 in a bid to capitalise on Australia’s gradual switch to alternative powertrain technology.
Seven years and a couple of updates later, the Prius C is still chugging along and now holds the title of most affordable hybrid vehicle on sale in Australia.
Despite its value compared to other hybrids, it still is one of the more expensive offerings in the value-conscious light car segment and was also the slowest selling sub-$25,000 light car in 2018, with 518 sales.
The two-variant range is topped by the i-Tech, which packages excellent fuel economy and stronger specification into a city-car package, appealing to green inner-city types and youngsters alike.
Does the Prius C i-Tech have what it takes to climb its way back up the sales ladder?
Price and equipment
The Prius C i-Tech checks in at $26,540 plus on-roads, putting it $2500 upstream of the entry-level Prius C.
With no other hybrid rivals to speak of in the light car segment, it is hard to compare the Prius C to its competitors, and its niche status means it is one of the slowest-selling offerings in the segment.
Nevertheless, competition comes in the form of volume-selling models such as the Hyundai Accent Sport ($17,490), Mazda2 Genki auto ($22,690), Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo ($22,990), Honda Jazz VTi-S ($19,990) and Skoda Fabia 81TSI ($19,890).
There is no segment where value and price point are more important than the light-car segment, and here the Prius C struggles to keep up with its rivals.
Even the mechanically related Toyota Yaris tops out at $22,570, meaning one would either have to be environmentally conscious or prioritise a minimal fuel bill to overcome the price premium of the Prius C.
However, the Prius C does have the advantage of being the most affordable hybrid vehicle on sale in Australia.
Standard kit in the i-Tech includes 15-inch alloy wheels, auto-levelling LED headlights, LED tail-lights, a rear spoiler, a premium steering wheel with integrated buttons, a 6.1-inch Toyota Link multimedia system with satellite navigation, a 4.2-inch information display, dark-grey leather seats, EV and Eco drive modes, push button start, keyless entry and 60/40 split-fold rear seats.
Safety kit includes seven airbags, a reversing camera, cruise control and hill-start assist.
We would like to have seen some extra safety features, such as autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning, included on the Prius C, and while it struggles to meet the value of its competitors, it is still the most affordable way into a hybrid vehicle in Australia.
Despite being the more expensive offering in the two-variant Prius C range, the i-Tech’s interior is still fairly low-rent with a loud cabin and an abundance of low-rent cabin plastics.
Like many other Toyota models, the Prius C’s dashboard is laid out in a funky and off-centre manner and moves the instrument cluster from behind the steering wheel to a more centralised position above the infotainment screen.
It features a digital speedometer and an adjustable information read-out, while two shallow storage cavities are found in place of where the instrument cluster would traditionally be.
Housed in an asymmetrical gloss-black surround is a 6.1-inch screen projecting an outdated version of Toyota’s infotainment system, which was never the best for functionality or ergonomics but looks even older compared to the new version found in offerings such as the current Japanese-built Camry.
Underneath sits the air-conditioning cluster, which is a tad confusing with its hodge-podge layout. While everyone soon figures how to work the various systems in their car, Toyota could have done a better job of simplifying the Prius C’s climate-control buttons.
Also featuring on the centre console are two cupholders, an angular storage cavity, a low-rent gear shifter, a manual handbrake, EV and eco mode buttons and a narrow storage bin. Storage is also found with a generously sized glovebox and a parcel shelf above.
Separating the i-Tech from the base-level Prius C are trimmings of leather on the dashboard, steering wheel and seats, the latter of which are comfortable and supportive, if not a bit narrow. Head and legroom, however, is ample for front occupants.
The same cannot be said for rear passengers. Both legroom and headroom for tall occupants is sub-par, but we will give Toyota a pass as this is par for the course in the light-hatch segment.
Comfort and convenience are also poor in the rear with no A/C vents or fold-down armrest and only a single cupholder at the rear of the centre console.
Boot space is reasonable for a car of this size, and cargo is protected by a tonneau cover.
Shopping bag hooks are absent and would be a welcome addition, while the low-rent feel of the interior continues with a flimsy and cheap boot floor that lifts right off to reveal the space-saver spare tyre underneath.
The Prius C is one of Toyota’s entry-level models and we hardly expect something resembling a five-star hotel inside, but we would like to see some more premium-feeling touchpoints and a stronger build feel for the top-spec i-Tech.
Engine and transmission
Powering the Prius C i-Tech is a hybrid system consisting of a synchronous electric motor and a 1.5-litre aspirated petrol engine developing a combined 74kW/169Nm, driving the front wheels via a continuously-variable transmission (CVT).
While the car weighs in at just 1140kg, engine performance is still underwhelming, with acceleration really only happening at one speed.
Pushing the throttle to the floor evokes essentially the same response from the engine as a regular input, not ideal for moments when a burst of acceleration is required.
Nevertheless, like other petrol-electric Toyota hybrids, the Prius C’s powertrain is a nifty unit, shifting smartly and seamlessly between electric motivation at low speeds and when coasting, and switching to the petrol engine when extra power is required.
The changes are smooth and barely noticeable, and the petrol engine can also feed electric power to the battery when it gets low.
Regenerative braking is also used to recharge the engine, which is relatively loud and intrusive when compared to the Camry hybrid, especially when factoring in the cabin’s mediocre sound insulation.
Efficiency is the name of the game with the little Prius’ powertrain, therefore using a CVT is a smart decision as it is able to get the most out of the petrol engine in the most fuel-effective way possible. It does make for boring driving characteristics, but that has never deterred Prius buyers in the past.
Speaking of efficiency, during our week of mostly urban driving we recorded a fuel economy figure of 4.3 litres per 100km, up only slightly on the miserly 3.9L/100km official number.
Although the car only has a 36-litre fuel tank, range anxiety is not a problem with such low consumption and will also result in minimal fuel bills for owners.
Considering its low fuel consumption and average engine performance, we think the Prius C would make a great option for a P-plater, with irresponsible, high-speed driving kept to a minimum while offering fuel bills that are manageable with a part-time job.
Ride and handling
After a week of driving, we found the Prius C’s ride quality to be about what you’d expect from an affordable light hatch, that being a car that is perfectly easy to drive but lacking on-road finesse.
Its light weight means it is able to skip over rough surfaces and large bumps fairly well, and its small dimensions ensures it can tackle urban roads and tight spaces with ease.
However, it is lacking in polish, with poor noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels caused by road and engine noise, and a surprising amount of body roll around corners for a car of its diminutive stature.
The dynamic abilities of the Prius C are limited, feeling like a car that would much rather be driven sensibly as opposed to one that eggs you on to take corners at high speeds. This is no doubt due to its old underpinnings, which date back to 2011 with the current-gen Yaris.
A move to Toyota’s ubiquitous TNGA architecture would no doubt improve the dynamic credibility of the Prius C, but that will likely have to wait until the next generation.
Steering feedback is light but arguably a tad too responsive, which at times can result in constant minor steering corrections that can become tiring.
That being said, it is still a very easy and user-friendly car to drive, with a decent ride quality, small dimensions, light steering and not enough engine power to do anything too silly.
Again, these are all qualities to suggest a good car for young drivers, especially if parents are worried that their child fancies themselves as something of a Formula 1 driver minus the skill.
The Prius C offers certain attributes that are hard to match – it is the most affordable hybrid vehicle in Australia, and with an official combined figure of 3.9 litres per 100km, offers outstanding fuel economy that few other vehicles can come close to matching.
However, its relatively expensive asking price compared to other light car offerings really hurts its appeal in a segment where value is a huge priority and cannot be justified by a higher level of refinement or specification.
Its ageing underpinnings also reveal a car that is lacking in finesse and active safety features, being overtaken in refinement by each rival that arrives in new-generation guise.
Its size, performance, fuel economy and driveability lend it to being a great option for first-car buyers, but more established drivers will probably find themselves looking to newer, more affordable offerings.
With the recent release of the new-generation Corolla, we eagerly anticipate what Toyota will possibly make of an all-new Prius C underpinned by the TNGA platform, which would no doubt greatly improve driving dynamics and NVH levels.
How long will that take? Only time will tell.
Mazda2 Genki auto from $22,690 plus on-road costs
Mazda’s smallest hatch in penultimate Genki spec offers good levels of specification and safety and comes with a classy and an interior that is well laid out. Power comes from an 81kW/141Nm 1.5-litre aspirated petrol engine, which provides solid but uninspiring performance.
Suzuki Swift GLX Turbo from $22,990 plus on-road costs
Suzuki’s Swift GLX Turbo is the understated firecracker of the light-car segment with a delightfully peppy 82kW/160Nm 1.0-litre turbo-petrol three-cylinder engine and go-kart-like handling characteristics. As expected for a 915kg vehicle, it does feel slightly tinny and bare-bones inside.
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Model release date: 1 August 2017
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