With gas prices moving back up again after three-plus years of lows, the best strategy for consumers might be to have at least one truly fuel-efficient vehicle in the driveway to help even out the monthly gasoline bill.
There are plenty of good options now, especially in the hybrid realm. Gasoline-electric hybrids are now available from a variety of manufacturers. Some of them are even plug-in hybrids, and for people who don’t want to buy gas at all, there are pure electrics available.
Toyota was a pioneer in the hybrid realm with its groundbreaking Prius. This year there are two sizes of the Prius to choose from: the regular, midsize Liftback model (which is also available in a plug-in hybrid model called the Prius Prime), and the compact Prius C, which we tested for this report. (There was a larger model, the Prius V, but it was discontinued after the 2017 model year.)
The lineup of models — all with five-passenger capacity — now includes the original (starting at $23,475 plus $920 freight); the Prius Prime plug-in, with a beginning price of $27,300); and the compact Prius C, starting as low as $20,630.
Toyota rolled out the Prius C in 2012 just as gasoline prices were hitting three-year highs. As gas prices have spiked, receded, and started climbing again, sales of all Prius models have been up and down as well.
There are four trim levels of the C, designated simply One ($20,630), Two ($21,430), Three ($22,855) and Four ($24,965), which we tested. But even the base model is well equipped, not a stripped-down version.
EPA ratings for the C — which stands for “city” — are 48 mpg city/43 highway/46 combined. In our recent weeklong test, we put about 300 miles on the C, and still had more than two-thirds of a tank of gas left. The onboard trip computer said we averaged 46.6 mpg. When the tank was full, it said the distance to empty was more than 760 miles.
The Prius C got a mild exterior restyling for 2018. Toyota calls it a “new crossover-inspired design, including a standard black roof rail accent that’s complemented by front and rear, silver-accented lower body guards and a color-keyed rear spoiler.” There are also new black side rocker-panel and wheel-arch moldings, along with new 15-inch, eight-spoke machined alloy wheels with dark gray-painted accents and P175/65R15 tires.
Two new exterior colors are offered for 2018: Sandstorm and Tide Pool Pearl ($395 extra), which was the color of our test vehicle.
Also for 2018, all trim levels now come with an integrated backup camera, along with the existing Toyota Safety Sense C driver-assist technologies. They include the Pre-Collision System, Lane Departure Alert and Automatic High Beams.
Under the hood is a 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine with 73 horsepower and 82 foot-pounds of torque, combined with a 60-horsepower electric motor. Not all of the combined power is available at the same time, but maximum output is 99 horsepower, which pushes this 2,500-pound car along quite nicely.
Power from the engine and electric motor are distributed to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission, which was smooth throughout its range.
This car is surprisingly fun to drive, with plenty of power even when we had two people in the back seat. It handles quite well on twisty roads, too.
The C weighs about 500 pounds less than the regular Prius, and is about 19 inches shorter.
Its 144-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is automatically recharged by the gasoline engine and so-called regenerative braking, which uses the car’s inertia to create power as the vehicle decelerates. The C never has to be plugged in to an outside power source.
As with other traditional hybrids, the gasoline engine shuts off automatically whenever the car comes to a stop, and the vehicle can start moving again on battery power alone for a bit before the engine kicks back on. In EV mode, which can be selected by the driver, the C can go up to a mile at speeds up to 25 mph using battery power alone.
Other selectable driving modes are Normal and Eco. Toyota said the Eco mode reduces overall energy consumption by adjusting the climate control system and throttle to maximize efficiency.
A hybrid-system monitor on the dash allows the driver to see how efficiently the car is being operated, and make adjustments to improve fuel economy.
The C looks small on the outside, but it’s roomy enough to hold four people quite comfortably, and five in a pinch. There is a decent amount of cargo space behind the rear seat, as well — 17.1 cubic feet, which is more than the average midsize sedan has in its trunk. The cargo area is accessed through a lift-up rear hatch.
Both the car’s nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery and 9.5-gallon fuel tank are below the rear seat, allowing the interior to have a total of 104 cubic feet of space, including 87.4 cubic feet in the passenger compartment.
There is a middle seatbelt in the back, but that position is not comfortable if adults or larger children are already in the outboard seat positions. But a child’s safety seat can be hooked up in the middle (which is where it should always be).
But our rear outboard passengers had no complaints. I rode in the back seat for a while, too, and had no problem getting in or out, or finding enough room for my legs.
Our Prius C Four model had a long list of standard features, including automatic climate control and a navigation/infotainment system with Bluetooth and smartphone connections.
Even the base model comes with such standard amenities as automatic climate control, tilt-telescopic steering wheel with audio/climate/driver’s info display/Bluetooth controls, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, and illuminated entry, among others.
With the Bluetooth connection, I was able to hook up my smartphone and stream my music through the great audio system, which also had XM radio and Internet apps. On our tester, besides the 6.1-inch touch-screen audio system with navigation and Toyota’s Entune system, we also had HD radio with iTunes tagging, a USB port with iPod/iPhone/iPad connectivity and control, a vehicle-information center with customizable settings, and advanced voice recognition.
Entune allows for connection to Bing and Pandora, and access to real-time traffic and weather info, fuel prices, sports, and stocks.
Also included were color-keyed outside door handles with touch- sensor lock/unlock feature, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio, climate, multi-information display, Bluetooth hands-free phone and voice-command controls, and a smart-key system with pushbutton start.
The Four grade also has Softex-trimmed heated front seats, color-keyed/heated/power outside mirrors with turn signal indicators, and integrated fog lights.
Other standard safety features include nine air bags, electronic stability control with traction control, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, and smart-stop technology that shuts off the accelerator when the brake pedal is pushed.
Extras on our tester included 16-inch, eight-spoke alloy wheels with P195/50R16 tires ($300); and carpeted floor and cargo-area mats ($224).
Total sticker price of our Prius C Four tester was $26,804, including freight and options.