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Toyota Prius C

The Toyota Prius C is a subcompact hatchback that joined the Prius family for the 2012 model year. One of a quartet of Priuses, the Prius C is the least expensive hybrid of the bunch, but doesn't outpace the larger Hatchback model with its 50-mpg fuel economy. It is easier to maneuver in urban driving, and a little more fun to drive than its siblings, however.

Launched in 2012 and continued unchanged for 2013, the Toyota Prius C starts at less than $20,000 but delivers the full functionality of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive—and some of the same high-mpg technology as other Prius models—available at a new lower price. It faces off in the market against both mainstream subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Hyundai Accent, and more specialized mild-hybrid subcompacts, notably the Honda Insight.

The Prius C is smaller and lighter than any other Prius model, so it receives a new and downsized powertrain—although it has fundamentally the same mechanical layout as any other Hybrid Synergy Drive model. The 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine is rated at 73 horsepower, while a smaller electric motor system and 0.9-kWh battery pack are similarly smaller.

While the lines of the Prius C are far less distinctive than the traditional Prius--to us, it looks like a mass-market model that might slot between the Yaris and the Matrix--it's actually a unique, hybrid-only body style. The rather ordinary five-door hatchback layout offers as much space up front as the standard Prius, though rather less in back, thanks to more upright seats. Cargo space with the rear seats up and in place is enough for a load of groceries, and the seatbacks fold forward to expand the cargo hold--it makes an excellent car for two people, with tolerable space for three or four in a pinch. Toyota managed to locate both the gas tank and the battery pack under the rear seat, meaning that unlike the Insight, the Prius C has a full-depth load deck.

From the driver's seat, the instrument-panel layout borrows some minor controls from the Yaris but shares the central gauges and readouts of the rest of the Prius lineup. There's a fair amount of interior noise, and the trims and materials are clearly a step down in quality compared to the Prius, but that's to be expected given the bargain price.

While it ends up at the same 50-mpg EPA combined mileage rating as the larger Prius Liftback, the details follow a different path: a 53-mpg city rating (higher), but a lower 47 mpg on a In a first drive of the Prius C we found the total powertrain's 99 hp to be responsive enough—and considerably more nimble and maneuverable than any other Prius—although hardly sporty. We found the best way to keep up with traffic was to work the little Prius hard--which didn't seem to affect gas mileage at all.

For less than $20,000, you'll make some tradeoffs to get the sophisticated hybrid powertrain. Just four trim levels are offered  (Prius C One, Prius C Two, Prius C Three, and Prius C Four), though even the least pricey Prius One model includes automatic climate control, power accessories, keyless entry, and USB/iPod connectivity. A navigation system and Toyota's Entune infotainment system come in the Prius C Three, while Prius C Four models get heated seats, alloy wheels, and fog lamps.

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