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Now in its second year, the 2013 Toyota Prius C is largely unchanged from the car that debuted last year. This is the smallest of the four-car Prius lineup, though like its siblings, its "dedicated hybrid" body style is only offered as a gas-electric hybrid vehicle.
Smaller and about $5,000 less expensive than the classic Prius Liftback, which counts as a mid-size car, the Prius C five-door hatchback falls between compact and subcompact in size. Its styling is less Space Age-y than the rest of the Prius lineup, and you might not know it's a hybrid if it weren't for the 50-mpg EPA combined gas-mileage rating.
For value-conscious drivers and first-time buyers, the Prius C's base price of $19,710 offers a much more affordable--and somewhat less oddball--way to enter the Prius lineup and still get the highest gas mileage rating of any non-plug-in car sold in the U.S. this year. That 50-mpg fuel efficiency breaks down to 53 mpg on the city cycle (higher than the Prius Liftback) and 46 mpg on the highway (lower than the Liftback), which points out how hard it is to make a very aerodynamic subcompact car.
The smaller, lighter hybrid gets a smaller, lighter powertrain. The 1.5-liter engine puts out 73 horsepower, and is paired with a more compact Hybrid Synergy Drive system with two motor-generators. The combined powertrain puts out a maximum of 99 hp. Toyota has cleverly managed to fit both a gasoline tank and a smaller 0.9-kilowatt-hour battery pack under the rear seat, meaning that the Prius C offers a full-depth load bay--unlike the Honda Insight, which has a shallower cargo area with the battery pack underneath.
On the road, the smallest Prius is surprisingly nimble and maneuverable, especially in comparison to the numb and ponderous handling of its larger siblings. But again, don't expect the dynamics of a sporty performance hatchback. Instead, the payoff is clear at the pump: In 50 miles of driving around San Diego—including freeways, two-lane roads, and stop-and-go—we saw a 51.4-mpg average.
Acceleration is about on par with other economical subcompacts. But performance is definitely not a priority, with the Prius C offering an Eco mode--which reduces power output and has different climate-control settings--as well as an EV mode, for going up to a half mile on electricity only. But fans of hot hatches will notice that the Prius C has no Power or Sport mode
The 2013 Prius C is closer in size to the subcompact Toyota Yaris than to the compact Matrix hatchback, at 157 inches long and 67 inches wide. That makes the five-door hybrid hatchback truly maneuverable and perfectly suited to big city use and tight parking spaces. The smooth, round, low front end and swept-back headlamps offer a mix of Prius and Yaris styling cues, but the upright rear reads generic subcompact--without the Prius Littback's drooping, chopped-off tail and two-part rear window. The Prius C has vertical tail lamps, a long roof spoiler, and a conventional liftgate that's more vertical than horizontal. From the rear, observers may never know it's a hybrid if they don't read the badges.
Open the door of the 2013 Toyota Prius C, and you'll see an all-new dashboard that blends a traditional Prius centrally mounted Multi Information Display just below the windshield with more conventional controls--including not the class Prius drive selector stalk sprouting from the dash, but a conventional floor-mounted chrome shift lever. Other switches and controls are recognizable from the Yaris subcompact as well.
Inside, you'll find more cabin space in the Prius C than you might suspect. Front seats feel about the same as in other Prius models; in back, two six-footers should be able to fit without any fuss--though there's no mistaking it for a mid-size car.
The material and trim quality is noticeably cheaper than what you'll find in the current Prius, though it's about average for mainstream subcompacts. Our test cars appeared to be built and assembled well, without squeaks or other glitches. Toyota has clearly worked to keep cost down, with painted metal visible inside on the window surrounds and hatchback, but the effect is thrifty rather than grim. In base Prius C One models, there's even a conventional ignition key rather than push-button start.
The Prius C was named an IIHS Top Safety Pick last year; it comes with nine standard airbags, along with all the now-typical safety aids such as electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist.
With delivery included, the base price of the 2013 Toyota Prius C is $19,710 for the lowest of four trim levels, the Prius C One. Even that base model comes with an impressive level of standard equipment, including automatic climate control, power accessories, keyless entry, and a sound system that includes a USB port (and iPod capability). Moving up the range, the Prius C Three includes a navigation system and Toyota's Entune interface, while the top-of-the-line Prius Four adds fog lamps, alloy wheels, and heated seats. To simply ordering (and allow for some dealer customization), there's only a single option package, consisting of alloy wheels and a moonroof bundled together.
While the Prius C costs a couple of thousand dollars more than a comparably equipped gasoline subcompact hatchback, it's likely that you can get a payback in its vastly improved fuel economy. To make the math easy, assume that a regular subcompact gets 33 mpg against the Prius C's 50 mpg. That's one extra gallon of gasoline every 100 miles--or a possible payback in as little as 50,000 miles (assuming $4-a-gallon gasoline).
Your mileage may vary, as will your comparison cars, your own travel patterns, and so forth. But if you want to hedge your bets against unpredictable gasoline prices and your overall fuel costs, the 2013 Toyota Prius C is the highest-mileage inexpensive car you can buy.