Toyota introduced the original Prius back in 1997 and it quickly polarised opinions. Hollywood and the US immediately jumped on the hybrid bandwagon and bought them in droves. Petrolheads regarded them as the end of life as we know it and the death knell of fun motoring. Toyota have sold over 3.3 million Priuses in over 80 countries, and they’re everywhere, operating as taxis as well as private transport. More recently with the third generation, Toyota have expanded the range from the original mid-sized family car to add the Prius v, available with seven seats, and the smaller Prius c tested here.

Having never driven a Prius I was really interested to see what all of the fuss was about, so I was quite looking forward to testing the Prius c. Most of the Priuses I’ve seen are white or silver so I was surprised to find that the test car was a rather striking metallic orange called Tango. My four year-old daughter loved it, as did a couple of pensioners I met in the petrol station! I’m a big fan of bold colours for cars and I think the orange suits this one.

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I jumped into the car, easily got the seating position comfortable, pushed the Start button and headed out into the Wellington rush hour traffic. The dash displays are offset towards the centre rather than in front of the driver, but for some reason this doesn’t feel weird and works well. There are three segments to the display for the usual warning lights, large digital speedo and fuel gauge, and a central information screen. The screen can be cycled through various modes using the steering wheel controls to show numerical data, a diagram view of where the power or charge is going, or a summary screen with driving efficiency, battery levels etc. After the car is turned off, data is shown about the trip including distance, time and fuel used. One neat feature is that when you touch the steering wheel buttons, a diagram of them appears on the screen highlighting where your finger is, so you don’t have to look down to see the buttons.

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First Impressions

The first thing I noticed when driving the Prius c in traffic was how quiet it is. The engine stop-start technology combined with the electric motors means it’s almost silent at low speeds, with a slowly building whine as the car speeds up. At about 30kph the engine kicks in smoothly and starts to feed in power, gradually taking over as the car speeds up. At higher speeds, wind and tyre noise are louder than the engine. The car can be put into pure electric mode by pushing a button but it is cancelled if the accelerator is pressed too far or the car goes above a certain speed.

The interior feels pretty basic. The shiny black inserts are okay but most of the other plastics on the doors and dash are hard and feel cheap. The gear shifter has a blue plastic insert which represents Toyota’s blue Eco badging, but to me it looks like a light-up kids’ toy. Generally the controls are laid out well, with big easy-to-find buttons. I’m not a fan of the cruise control stalk which pokes out to the South-East of the steering wheel, but moves around with the wheel. I found it fiddly to find and use.

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The standard six-speaker stereo is decent and has Bluetooth integration for phone and music, an in-dash single CD player, Bluetooth streaming, input jack and USB iPod control.

How does it drive?

The Prius c has a four-cylinder, 1.5 litre petrol engine with a maximum output of 54kW and 111Nm of torque. Adding the electric motors takes the peak power to 73.6kW. The engine is mated to an E-CVT gearbox. As you would expect with an eco-hybrid, everything is configured for maximum efficiency rather than performance, so the acceleration is pretty steady. Quoted 0-100kph is 14.6 seconds. If the car is in EV mode it’s even slower and when you take off from the lights it seems to take forever to get up to cruising speed. The brakes are very good, but a little grabby, a side-effect of the regenerative effect which is used to charge the batteries.

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When you’re used to a traditional petrol car it’s a little eerie to get into the car, push start and set off with no noise or vibration whatsoever, but this quickly starts to feel normal. You have to be even more aware than usual of pedestrians as you can creep up on them give them a surprise!

The eco-meter in the dash didn’t approve of my driving style and constantly rated me as zero on the braking scale. I found this interesting as I try to drive smoothly, cruising to a stop with minimal brake usage, but this doesn’t really fit with the idea of using regenerative braking to charge the batteries. Despite this I managed an average of 4.1 litres per 100km in general driving. Taking my early morning trip to work in stop-start traffic as a specific example, I did 17.2km in 30 minutes and consumption was 4.0l/100km with 7.7km driven on electric. This was with Eco Mode turned on, but otherwise no attempts to drive in a more economical fashion than normal.

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Steering is light with little feedback but the car goes where you want it to with no drama. The suspension is fairly firm but not harsh, and body roll is minimal. The car gives you the feeling you’re sitting on top of the chassis rather than inside it. It’s not what I’d call a driver’s car, but it’s not meant to be, it’s an eco city car, and as such it performs just as you would want it to.

One thing that I found irritating is there’s no foot rest for your left foot, which started to feel uncomfortable after driving for a while.

Features

Safety is excellent. The Prius c has a five star ANCAP safety rating, seven airbags, ABS, brake assist, EBD, traction and stability control and seatbelt pre-tensioners as standard.

Standard features include keyless entry, climate control, electric windows all-round, electrically adjustable mirrors and cruise control. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and height. There are a few storage bins and boxes dotted around and several cup and bottle holders.

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The model tested was the top of the range s-Tech, meaning it had a few extra features over the more basic models. The self-levelling LED headlights are really good. LED main beam and foglights are also included. The synthetic leather seats look and feel more like plastic to me but are comfortable enough. Similarly with the leather steering wheel – I’m not sure what kind of leather it is but it’s not exactly luxurious.

The boot’s a reasonable 305L which should be enough to fit in your weekly shop and there are some small hidden storage compartments under the floor alongside the space saver spare wheel. The rear seat backs fold almost flat and are split 60/40 if you need to get something bigger in there. They can’t fold completely flat because the batteries live under the rear seat base.

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Rear legroom is pretty good for a small car, but as with most smaller cars I wouldn’t want to spend much time with three adults in the back seat.

What it’s up against

Brand / ModelEnginePowerFuel L/100kmCO2 g/km0-100km/hPrice Highest to Lowest
Nissan LeafElectricN/AN/AN/A$39,990
Honda Insight1.3l 4 cylinder petrol electric hybrid72kW/167Nm4.310310.5 s$36,900
Toyota Prius C1.5l 4 cylinder petrol electric hybrid74kW/111Nm3.99014.6 s$34,830
Volkswagen Polo Auto1.2l 4 cylinder66kW/160Nm4.710910.8 s$26,490
Ford Fiesta Auto1.5l 4 cylinder82kW/140Nm5.8137Not quoted$25,490
Mazda 2 Auto1.5l 4 cylinder81kW/141Nm4.911412 s$23,495
Skoda Citigo Auto999cc 3 cylinder55kW/99Nm4.510513.2 s$19,990
Kia Picanto Auto1.25l 4 cylinder64kW/123Nm5.312514.4 s$18,990
Suzuki Celerio CVT998cc 3 cylinder50kW/90Nm4.811214.94 s$17,500
Fiat Panda Auto875cc 2 cylinder turbo63kW/145Nm4.19511.5 s$14,990

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The good and the bad.

ProsCons
  • Fuel efficient
  • Quiet
  • Spacious inside
  • Hybrid technology very smooth and  well implemented
  • Interior feels cheap
  • Slow acceleration
  • Numb driving experience
  • Expensive

 

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What do we think?

After spending some time with the Prius c I’ve been racking my brains trying to work out why anyone would buy one. It’s not that it’s a bad car, but it’s also nothing special. Equipment levels and safety are good but the interior feels cheap, it’s slow and has no real character.
It’s efficient on fuel and the hybrid system is impressive in its smoothness, but it’s also complex and heavy.

The main reason I expect people buy it because the Prius has been marketed so well that it has become a synonym for eco-car.

There are several other small cars with traditional engines which are very nearly as efficient, have similar CO2 emissions and cost half as much as the Prius, without the need to change or recycle batteries after ten or so years.

 

Rating – Chevron rating 2 out of 5

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Vehicle TypeEco Hybrid City Car
Starting Price$34,830 NZD + on-road costs
Tested Price$34,830 NZD
Engine4-Cylinder in-line 16-valve DOHC with VVT-i plus electric motor
TransmissionCVT
0 – 100 kph14.6 seconds
Kerb Weight1120 kg
Length x Width x Height3995 x 1695 x 1450 mm
Cargo Capacity305 Litres
Fuel Tank36 litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings5 stars

 

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