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First Drive: 2012 Toyota Prius C

Could anyone have forecast the success of the ugly little hybrid Toyota introduced back in 1997, when oil cost about $20 a barrel? “Yes,” says a grinning Satoshi Ogiso. The Toyota chief engineer has been involved in Prius development since the beginning and has been gratified to see more than three million of his babies roll out of dealerships worldwide.

However, those impressive sales aside, the Prius’s luster has started to dull. Just about every automaker of consequence now offers a gas-electric competitor, and, thanks mostly to Toyota’s slow adoption of lithium-ion batteries — the Prius Plug-in hybrid finally goes on sale this year — some perform better than the Prius. It’s been worth wondering of late if Ogiso and his team have milked all they can out of their hybrid head start.

Not so fast. If it’s now relatively easy to build a hybrid, it’s still very difficult to build a cheap one, which is exactly what Toyota has just accomplished. “My goal was to create an attainable hybrid…and not compromise the technology,” says Ogiso. That, in a nutshell, is the 2012 Prius C, the newest and smallest member of the Toyota hybrid family.

Moving down a weight class

In pictures the new C looks a lot like its larger relatives, featuring the same Kammback profile as the Prius and Prius V hatchbacks. It also employs now familiar Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, which, consists of a small four-cylinder gas engine running on the Atkinson cycle, an electric motor, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, and a continuously variable transaxle.

In person, however, it’s apparent that the Prius C is a much smaller and therefore different vehicle. Indeed, it derives its underpinnings not from the Prius but from the recently revised Yaris subcompact. This required all the hybrid components to similarly slim down. A 1.5-liter rather than a 1.8-liter four-cylinder lives under the hood with a similarly smaller, lighter power inverter. The battery pack consists of 120 cells rather than 168, saving some 25 pounds and allowing it to fit under the rear bench seat without intruding into the cargo hold. The most complex component, the CVT transaxle that also contains the electric motor, is cooled by its own transmission fluid rather than by water, which means it can do without a bulky radiator.

The sum of all these smaller parts is that the Prius C weighs 2496 pounds — about 500 pounds less than the regular Prius. In fact, it’s slightly lighter than a Ford Fiesta with a stick shift.

Despite its smaller package, the C packs the same fuel-efficiency punch as its big brother — a 50 mpg combined EPA rating. Ogiso credits fast improving software for being able to eke more performance out of a smaller battery pack. The C actually scores a bit better than the regular Prius in the city, at 53 mpg, though it does worse on the highway at 46 mpg. Those numbers easily surpass those of the C’s closest competitor, the 42-mpg Honda Insight. And although the new Prius gives up more than a foot in length to the Honda hybrid, it offers more passenger and cargo volume.

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