2012 Toyota Prius C Three: The C is for "cuter."
Price: $23,519 as tested. (Including $850 for the sunroof, $225 for floor mats, and $49 for a cargo net.)
Marketer's pitch: As the millions of TV commercials have said: "A (Game of Life) game piece to move you to the next level."
Conventional wisdom: The 25-dollar fill-up makes a comeback.
Reality: A less interplanetary Prius.
A delicate balance: Whenever I try out the Driver's Seat on well-known models, I brace myself for the inevitable onslaught of responses, most of them less-than-favorable.
People who hate Hondas and Toyotas think I kiss up if I write anything good about them; the droves of people who buy and love them wonder why I can't say everything is just ducky and millions of people can't be wrong, you moron.
So, to clarify my track record on Toyota (and you can visit philly.com/driversseat for the columns) thus far: I loved the 2011 Sienna, liked the 2011 Prius X, and was no fan of the 2012 Tundra or the 2011 Corolla.
What is it? The C actually stands for City. Presumably Toyota is thinking that you'd want to keep this little baby close to home.
It's a smaller, more normalized gasoline-electric hybrid than the standard Prius, from the typical-hatchback exoskeleton to the dashboard and gear selector that feel more like a car than the command center of the Starship EnterPrius.
Inside: The Prius C hasn't gone completely retro, though. The dashboard still features a digital speedometer in front and center, without a tachometer or temperature gauge. But it's easy to read and it works.
City only? Being an obstinate breed of auto writer, I took the Prius C on a 225-mile Turnpike trip to Western Pennsylvania and was satisfied with its handling on the highway. It never wheezed on the interstate. And, as in many hybrids, fuel economy does go down considerably at high speeds.
Cargo space: We managed to get enough overnight luggage for three plus shovels and rakes and implements of landscaping on the folded seat next to Sturgis Kid 4.0 without any squeezing.
On the road: Hats off to Toyota because it has made the gasoline-electric interface the smoothest I've felt yet in both this Prius and the 2011 Prius X. (Honorable mention goes to General Motors, for the Chevrolet Volt and Buick LaCrosse eAssist.)
The 1.5-liter engine has most of the spunk that the vehicle requires, although drivers should refrain from pulling uphill from a start into traffic. Climbing some of the steeper grades on country roads in the Laurel Highlands can be slow but still better than a red VW Microbus.
Shiftless: Neither the CVT in this Prius nor the Prius X I tested in the fall annoyed me. It seems to drive the wheels responsively, without the lag I've felt in other cars.
Twisty: It's not the Mini Cooper, or even the Ford Fiesta, but the Prius C isn't bad when the road gets windy.
When the breeze turns windy, however, the lightweight Prius gets tossed around like the S.S. Minnow.
The seats: Having just come off a week with the Scion iQ, I found this little car like a Cadillac in comparison. Even 11-year-old Sturgis Kid 4.0 remarked on how much more comfortable it was.
Rear legroom was snug, and my head met the ceiling in the back.
Looking out: Visibility is excellent. The C beats out the standard Prius, because the roofline is more normalized and the wind-cheating rail across the middle of the rear window is gone. The rear wiper actually makes rearward visibility possible in the rain.
Tunes: The sound system is hampered by extra clicks to switch from CD to radio or to adjust the sound quality. But I did get accustomed to it after a while.
Consumption: I measured about 51 mpg in a highway-heavy mix of driving. The trip to Johnstown, though, sank the mileage to 47, which is still admirable.
How it's built: Consumer Reports gives the regular Prius top ratings for dependability. (The C is too new for a full complement of testing.)
In the end: I fell in love at first sight with the C. It's not heaps of fun to drive, and the price of admission is a little steep, but it's practical and certainly saves on fuel.
A stripped-down Prius C One can get you in the club for just under $19K; you'd probably want to part with another thousand to enjoy such luxury features as variable intermittent windshield wipers, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat with adjustable headrests, cruise control and the center console with armrest and storage compartment in the Two.