To say Toyota has done well with the Prius is to say Apple just might have something with that tablet thingy they introduced a few years back. Toyota fully believes the iconic hybrid will be their most important car by the end of the decade, bigger than Corolla (the best selling nameplate of all time) and Camry (the best selling sedan in American for a decade).

In March there will be a new Prius. The big deal? It s small.

Toyota hopes that Prius c, (the letter stands for city) will attract the kind of customers automakers crave- young ones, though they probably won t turn anyone away. Toyota believes c sales will make up about 15-20 percent of the Prius family. Remember, there s the large Prius V now too.

Compared to the standard Prius, the c is 19 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower and around 540 pounds lighter. But the biggest reduction is one your wallet will appreciate. Starting at $19,710 with destination, it s about four grand less than big brother. So here, c stands for cost cutter. I am driving a Three model that retails for $22,395.

Power is Smaller, Too

Providing scoot is a 73 horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder and a 60 horse electric motor for a total of 99 horsepower. Toyota didn t just drop the larger Prius hybrid system under the hood.
Everything from the battery to the power inverter and transaxle is different and smaller. FYI, the engine is a slightly modified version of the one used in the previous generation Prius. Air conditioning and power steering are electric, there s nothing belt driven off the engine.

The transmission is a continuously variable unit and ditches the usual Prius joystick for a standard shift lever. A nickel metal hydride battery is under the seat for a lower center of gravity and extra room in the trunk.

Drives Like a Prius

The expected hybrid synergy drive dynamics are here. When starting out, a unique whirring sound warns pedestrians you re silently pulling on electric power, the gas engine feathers in when more power is needed. The battery is charged when coasting or breaking.

Eco Mode softens the throttle response to help lead foot drivers get better gas mileage. C is for creeping, EV Mode means electric only operation for a mile under 25 miles per hour with a fully charged battery. Apparently Toyota engineers often sneak back home late at night, those party animals. Hope their garage door is quiet.

With the Prius name, fuel economy is critical. Toyota estimates the EPA rating will be 53 city, 46 highway, overall about the same as the regular model at a 50 MPG average. My short time behind the wheel finds that pretty accurate.

A new display feature allows the driver to enter the cost of fuel, Prius then displays how much the trip cost or how much is saved compared to another car. This could be significant if your other vehicle is a Sequoia.

Comfort is Important Too

Historically, small cars have been referred to as penalty boxes. These days that s changing and the Prius c is a good example. It s fairly comfortable and quiet for a small car, even at highway speeds.

Toyota posts an official 0 to 60 time of 11.5 seconds and top speed of 105 MPH (in case Al Gore s kids are reading). Using my fairly accurate Dynolicious app, I m seeing 10.6 second on the most level piece of clear asphalt I can find. The engine certainly makes itself known when heading up hills or under hard acceleration. The c word for handling is controlled . C is not overly sporty like Honda Fit and Chevy Sonic, but it is solid and capable.

It is very maneuverable; u-turns on my Prius c 3 tester are no problem at all. FYI, the top-of-the-line c 4 model (appealing to TSA workers with a sense of humor) has it s electric power steering calibrated differently for the largest wheel option, apparently giving it a sportier feel but slightly wider turning radius.

C is For Cabin

The interior uses good quality hard plastics and it s easy to find a comfy position with a tilt/telescope wheel. Digital gauges are center mounted, deeply hooded from the sun s glare and a bit on the small side. There s a good amount of storage including a large glove box and a handy spot just forward of the steering wheel.

The exposed location of standard USB port makes it hard to hide an iPod if you want to leave an old one plugged in all the time. It would be better in the covered center console, nice that the Prius c has one of those. Also standard? Bluetooth for phones (expected these days) and automatic climate control (very surprising and welcomed).

Toyota believes the c will appeal to younger buyers who need to be connected 24/7 to the internet. For them there s the Entune system. It runs apps like Pandora streaming music and Bing search. Entune gets its data from your smart phone that gets plugged into the USB port. It can give you sports, stock and weather info, plus gas prices or a good restaurant. Remember it uses your phone s data plan so you need a robust one.

Safety? Si!

There are 9 airbags including units in the front seats that position people better to make the front bags more effective. Hope you never need to find out. Prius c uses a lot of high strength steel for a rigid structure that improves the driving dynamics as well as protecting people.

Prius c is available in models One through Four. I m tooling around a Three that gets keyless ignition, upgraded fabric and a touch screen sound system head that has Entune. Go with the base One model and you re starting the hybrid system up old school with an actual physical key. I suggest splurging for the Two because One doesn t get cruise control or a handy split folding rear seat (it drops in one piece).

Moving rearward, c does not stand for completely cramped or contortionist. There are belts for three; room is decent for two adults with adequate leg room. This is good for a small car. There one seat pocket, a fold out cupholder, and no power port.

C is also for cargo and compact. I m at a press launch in San Diego so no TP trunk test, but my luggage is a good gauge. My computer bag, tripod case and suitcase fit fine, but there s no room for my big camera bag. Translated that s probably a three in the TP Trunk Test, four tops. There s a spare tire though, I d expect the c to save weight with a simple repair kit.

Worth The Price?

Whether the extra cost of the hybrid system over a standard car is worth it depends on the type of driving you do. If it s lots of city slogging, the c shines since that s where it gets its best fuel economy. A number of non-hybrid compacts are highway rated at 40 mpg, and while that doesn t reach Prius c s estimated 46 number, simple math reveals it would take a lot of driving to make up the extra cost of the hybrid system.

In urban driving, Toyota crows that Prius c is most the fuel efficient car you can buy without a plug in. It s also the least expensive hybrid on the road. So if you re looking for high mileage, ultra low emissions and a reasonable price, the Prius c just might be letter perfect.

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