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Prius c is all about fuel economy and low emissions; as far as we know, it has the highest EPA ratings of any car without a plug. The basics of the propulsion system parallel those of the Prius on a smaller scale.
Power comes from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled with a pair of electric motors and a 144-volt, 0.87-kilowatt hour battery pack beneath the rear seat. Each of the electric motors serves a different function and the computer that runs it all sends a maximum of 99 total horsepower to the wheels, yielding a power-to-weight ratio similar to the bigger Prius.
Performance is not the priority and Toyota quotes a conservative 0-60 time of 11.5 seconds. We routinely did it in the middle-10s, however, about what we get from the big Prius. Those figures are not quick by anyone's stopwatch. Any slower and we'd need to a calendar. However, in traffic, we never found ourselves lacking power to keep up comfortably.
Prius c will run up to 1.5 miles on battery alone while staying under 25 mph with a very light foot, and we managed half a mile of moderate hills and start/stop before the gasoline engine came on with 1 of 8 bars showing in the battery state of charge gauge (each bar equals about 1/10 of a kilowatt-hour). Usually traffic, acceleration or speed got the gas engine participating much sooner.
An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) doesn't work the way most CVTs do but the results are similar. To keep engine and electric motor speeds in the most efficient range for the performance the driver asks for, the speeds are variable, so mashing the gas pedal will result in engine revs and noise that don't let up until you back off the gas. At full throttle it is normal for the Prius c to sound like a ski boat pulling a skier up.
EPA ratings peg the mileage at 53/46 mpg City/Highway, or 50 mpg Combined. We averaged 50 mpg in mixed driving. A hyper-miler proudly broke 70 mpg, but the resulting driving style showed a lack of consideration and angered and frustrated other drivers. It's worth noting we can achieve 32 mpg in a 1-ton 4WD pickup using hyper-miler techniques. Despite our 50 mpg average we posted data display eco scores of just 16 to 33 out of 100. Let's hope Prius c drivers don't try to achieve perfect scores, at least not when they're in front of us.
By comparison, a regular Prius gets an EPA-rated 51/48 mpg City/Highway, with the same 50 mpg Combined rating. The advantage in city mileage for the Prius c can be attributed primarily to its lighter weight, a smaller gas engine and lighter wheels and tires than used on the regular Prius. At higher speeds, the superior aerodynamics of the Prius account for its better highway economy (a longer car is easier to make aerodynamic). If you drive efficiently, using the onboard display or merely your brain, the Prius c achieves better mileage in slower conditions. Hybrids rarely achieve EPA-estimated numbers at the higher speeds of freeways and interstates due to aerodynamic drag. If you spend more miles driving at freeway speeds or if you haul around a lot of people (which will have less effect on the big car's performance than the smaller one's), then you'd be better off saving up the extra money for the Prius.
The Prius c brake pedal triggers regeneration wherein the drivetrain uses the car's momentum to recharge the battery pack. For max economy you want to touch the pedal just enough to engage this function (and the brake lights); a hard press of the pedal engages the wheel brakes and your momentum, and the fuel that created it, is converted to heat. This is why the brake pedal feels light and touchy, a feeling you can learn to use to achieve peak efficiency.
Prius c shares some background with the Yaris and it rides and handles much the same as most compact cars. Suspension design is chosen with maximum cabin space in mind. With room for four or five, a 17 cubic-foot cargo area, a battery pack and a 9.5-gallon gas tank, in this footprint Toyota has succeeded. The Prius c has a solid ride, approaching bouncy only on bad roads. It stays relatively flat in corners because the weight is kept low, and it goes where you point it. Ultimate grip levels are low because of its slim tires designed for low rolling resistance, but the handling is predictable and fine for novice drivers.
Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are available on the Prius c Four, a wider, low-profile version of the Bridgestone Turanza tires all Prius c models come with. The 16-inch wheels and tires produce more cornering and braking power with no big detriment to ride quality, but they also change the steering settings. Despite wider tires the steering feels lighter than on the 15-inch wheels and it's quicker, but the 16-inch wheels don't turn nearly as tightly: it goes from 31.4 feet needed for a U-turn to 37.4 feet, the space many mid-size sedans and crossovers need. That's a big difference. We recommend the 15-inch wheels and tires.
Heavy acceleration up an on-ramp brings engine noise. Once at cruising speed most noise comes from wind or the road. It's not loud but reinforces the notion this is primarily a city runabout. There is a fan for the battery pack on the left rear floor but even in hard driving we never heard it; we do hear it occasionally on the big Prius, either because that's a quieter car or the fan inlet is up higher and noisier.