Toyota's new 2012 Prius C doesn't look like a math problem, but that's what it is.
Hidden behind its attractive hatchback body and Toyota Synergy Drive hybrid powertrain, the Prius C is just a bunch of numbers. Numbers like the car's miles per gallon rating, its MSRP, how many can be produced and how many Toyota hopes to sell. Toyota ran these numbers through its "Do we build it?" formula, which is what caused the Prius C to come into being, but the good news is that this smallest of Prii adds up to more than what was put into it, and even introduces a bit of fun to the appliance-like Prius driving experience. Not much, mind you, but enough that its target audience – young people who want to buy the most efficient gas-powered vehicle on the market today – should take notice.
Here are some of the calculations that Toyota is making for its new Prius family. Instead of selling 136,463 "normal" Prius Liftbacks as it did last year (down from 140,928 in 2010), the Japanese automaker believes that three new models – the bigger V, the smaller C and the Plug-In version – will push cumulative Prius sales up to 220,000 in 2012 and then go up from there.
Last year, Toyota's group vice president for U.S. sales, Bob Carter, said he expects the Prius to be the automaker's number one nameplate by 2020. Sure, the Prius continues to sell well in green car circles and has been the best selling car in Japan for a year and a half, but for Carter's statement to come true, the Prius family would have to outsell the almighty Camry. Think about that. Think about the ambition – and challenge – behind those words. This is the equation that the Prius C needs to solve.
Toyota is confident that it's cracked the hybrid sales code: Offer more models. During the recent launch event for the Prius C in San Diego, CA, representatives told Autoblog that they don't expect that the bigger or smaller Priuses will much affect sales of the Goldilocks standard model, now known as the Liftback, so their obvious challenge is to create more demand for the new versions of the world's most popular hybrid. The V does that with more storage (read: family) space. The C does it with its shifter.
Settling behind the wheel, the Prius C is, unquestionably, a Prius. There's the push-button starter, the slight delay in calling up the "Ready" light and the now-expected silence when the hybrid is on. But when you put the car into Drive, you notice that the C feels like something other than a Prius: There's an honest-to-god PRNDL shifter. All other Prius models do away with this relic of a simpler powertrain age in favor of that little flick knob thing where you just tap it into D or R or whatever. Since shifting in the C, like all other Priuses, is electronically driven, Toyota could just as easily have given the C the traditional Prius knob and made regular Prius drivers feel right at home.
Satoshi Ogiso, the Prius' chief engineer and one of the few Toyota engineers who's been involved with every Prius model – he calls himself the patriarch of the Prius family – told Autoblog that this is exactly what he was trying to avoid. When brand new potential Prius buyers get into the C, they should feel right at home, he said.
"For the Prius C, we want to expand the customer base, including younger people," he said. "So we chose the conventional shift layout." This decision was slightly controversial, since the focus groups who were asked about this expressed an interest in both the new and the regular Prius shifter. Given that the non-Prius specific shifter is cheaper to produce, solving for X here meant going against tradition.
The shifter tries to communicate more driving fun, and so do the interesting colors available for the Prius C; ours was a great orange called Habanero. On the highest trim level, the C can accept either 15- or 16-inch wheels (we drove models with both sizes, but the subject of our photoshoot was wearing the larger size), and also comes standard with SofTex faux leather on the seats that actually feels gentle to the touch, but weighs less than real leather and produces 99 percent fewer VOC emissions when made than synthetic leather.
So the Prius C looks like fun. Once the shifter is settled into D and things start moving, however, you begin to realize that no matter how much Toyota wants you to think this isn't your momma's Prius, it still is. That's not a terrible thing, since a Prius drives the way it does because it's focused on fuel efficiency. The C doesn't even have a power mode like other Prius models do.
Still, in the C, focusing on fuel economy means that three of the car's all-important numbers are 53/46/50. Those are the EPA estimated city/highway/combined mpg ratings, and we'll gladly eat our Prius C swag hat if they aren't the three numbers that pull heaps of people into Toyota dealerships across the U.S. when the C becomes available in March. Add in the low, low starting MSRP of $18,950 and it's easy to see that the math works out. The high-end "4" trim line will start at $23,230, though these prices do not include Toyota's $760 destination charge.
Another number comes to mind when driving the Prius C: 11.5 seconds. That's how long Toyota says the C will take to reach 60 miles per hour, but the little hybrid doesn't even feel that quick. Thanks to the battery pack hidden under the rear seats, the C has a low center of gravity that's supposed to help with handling, but this is still a Prius and drives that way. The 1.5-liter aluminum four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine can often be heard struggling, especially up hills, as it spits out its 99 horsepower. This isn't particularly bothersome, especially if you're used to a normal Prius, but we're curious to see how newcomers to the fold will feel when they get in the driver's seat.
If you're familiar with the regular Prius and want to get a feeling for the C's size, imagine slicing 19 inches off the Liftback and making the wheelbase about six inches shorter. Then remove about 500 pounds. Now you've got a C, mostly. Since the C doesn't feel cramped in any way up front, it has to lose space from somewhere, and thus the back seats feel especially small. Still, with little in the way back there, at least rear visibility is quite good. Even with the diminutive rear seats, Ogiso told us that there is no plan to offer the Prius C as a two-seat coupe at any time.
We did like the view of the info screens that are available to the driver, especially the screen that let us know we were getting well over 53 miles per gallon on our 60-mile drive through the San Diego countryside. One great new feature is the Eco Savings screen, where you can tell the system how much it cost you to fill up and the car will track how much you're paying per mile. You can also input the MPG of a comparison vehicle, which gives you bragging rights if you can beat it, though there's no way to input MPGe here, so you'll have to do comparisons with plug-in vehicles by hand. Watch this Short Cut to see the Eco Savings screen and the other information options.
Given how useful these features are, we honestly don't know which we'd most likely use as our default. For now, Eco Savings is only available on the 2012 Prius C, but a similar calculator is also available in the Prius Plug-In and could come to other models in the future.
Speaking of other options, Ogiso said that adding a plug-in powertriain to the C "would be difficult right now," but made sure to say that Toyota is still considering all options and that nothing has been decided about future plug-in hybrid or all-electric Prius models. A plug-in V model would, of course, be easier because that car offers more room to accommodate the extra batteries and other plug-in components. We won't be completely surprised when we do finally get a plug-in C, because Toyota's stance is that plug-in hybrids are the right next step in advanced powertrains. The company line goes that, with a PHEV, you don't have any range limitations and they are easy enough to charge using standard 110-volt outlets. Toyota reckons that these are two important factors for people considering a more efficient vehicle. For now, we have to make due with a crippled EV mode in the C that allows for speeds up to 25 miles per hour for just half a mile thanks to its small NiMH battery that holds just 0.87 kWh of energy (the Liftback, by comparison, holds 1.2 kWh).
Add it all up and the question remains: Will all these numbers be enough to motivate tens of thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of people to buy a Prius C? It certainly seems to be the case in Japan, where demand is outstripping supply. Ogiso said that Toyota can build up to 60,000 Liftback or V models and up to 30,000 C models each month. That's well over a million Priuses a year, which is a target that Toyota has set for itself, but not yet reached.
These lofty numbers show that Toyota is ready to reach quite high, and we can see the company actually achieving its targets before too long. After all, the Prius C is still a Prius – a popular car – and one that'll offer over 50 miles per gallon while starting at under $19,000. However you calculate it, that will sell.