Prius making its microcar mark

BY Kelly Taylor. Jul 28 03:00 am

It would be easy for an automotive journalist to hate the Toyota Prius c.

Easy, but unfair.

The greater challenge when testing a vehicle such as the Prius, in any of its iterations, is to put yourself in the shoes of a buyer in the target market. Arguably, these folks aren’t looking for breathtaking acceleration, apex-carving handling or look-at-me levels of luxury.

Basic, reliable, economical transportation and that’s what the Prius c provides.

Now, with a starting price of $21,975, it’s certainly not the cheapest micro on the market. Mitsubishi Mirage, Hyundai Accent and Nissan Micra duke it out for those honours, and you’d be hard-pressed to make up the price difference between either and the Prius c in fuel savings.

So that “economical” descriptor comes with an asterisk. Prius c arguably gets you the lowest fuel bill of the four, but not the lowest overall cost of ownership.

Yet you can get your fuel economy average down to 4.0 litres per 100 kilometres, or about 71 miles per imperial gallon, however.

The best part? You can drive the tar out of this thing and still be below a gas-only model for fuel economy.

Like its siblings, the c is a hybrid, using a small gas engine and an electric motor to share propulsion energy between a battery and the gas tank. It is, like the others, a parallel hybrid, meaning it can run on either fuel source, or both, as conditions permit. The electric motor also doubles as a generator, taking energy from the gas engine at times and from braking at other times.

As a hybrid, the Prius in all its forms inverts the fuel-economy meter: it gets better fuel economy in the city — where the electric motor can actually help — than on the highway, where the electric motor remains largely offline.

Also like its siblings, the c is a purpose-built hybrid: In other words, the location of the drive battery was designed in from the start, so you still get fold-down rear seats to add cargo space.

A number of hybrids on the road today — Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion — start as gas-only cars and the drive battery has to fit around existing architecture. That means you often lose fold-down seats or large amounts of trunk space.

Toyota has had 18 years to figure out its Hybrid Synergy Drive and it has made many refinements along the way. In the c, the engine still shuts off when stopped — under the right conditions — but it might now be the smoothest shut-down-restart sequence of any Toyota hybrid. Some auto-stops can be quite jarring.

What you get is a fairly sophisticated microcar: the dash, controls and overall feel of the interior punches above its weight class. There is also a wide array of features, even on the base model, including lane-departure alert, pre-collision, and auto high beams — all are part of the Toyota Safety Sense package. Of course, the car also includes ABS, stability control and smart-stop technology.

Along with an impressive array of features, particularly on the technology package tested, is an interesting omission.

It seems odd that a car that will tell you if you’re drifting out of your lane, will warm your buns and will automatically switch from high beam to low beam and back won’t give you one-touch lane-change signals. It is possibly the least expensive option to include.

Given how many cars share components such as body computers, it might be as simple as an extra line of machine code.

In terms of cargo space, I did say this was a microcar, yes? Yet because the rear seats fold down, it will satisfy the target market’s requirements perhaps 95 per cent of the time. Toyota’s web page offers a humorous typo. It’s missing a decimal, so it appears to suggest the Prius c has 484 cubic metres of cargo space. That’s about five times the volume of a typical rail car.

Pretty sure the company meant to say .484 cubic metres, which does convert to the 17.1 cubic feet Toyota also specifies. Still, the 484 litres of space (.484 m3 equals 484 litres) isn’t bad for a car this size.

For a recent archery tournament, both my bowcase and my son’s fit fine, but did require the seat folded down.

Maybe it’s the hatchback style, maybe the proportions are better and maybe the designers simply didn’t go crazy overdressing this car, but to me it looks far more attractive than its Prius counterpart.

The Prius c isn’t going to be on every car lover’s hot list. But for an urban dweller more concerned about emissions from the car’s tailpipe than the owner’s bank account, the c might be the perfect car.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca

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