Review: 2015 Toyota Prius C

[Editor’s note: Toyota lent us the key fob to this little city car for a week with a full tank of gas. We returned it with a full tank and without having attempted to flog it on a racetrack, though we wish we had done so like Jack Baruth did.]
There it is. Look at it, the filthy Internet Car Guy villain: Toyota Prius. Look at how its eye-searing orange paint calls for attention to its driver’s smugness and casual left-lane-blocking indifference. Look at how it wants to save us all by ruining us all.
Look at how I took the key (fob) to this Prius C and drove it to 150 miles from suburban Chicago to Michigan for a 24 Hours of LeMons race because it’s easy to render Internet judgment on a car’s premise; it’s more meaningful to know meet your villain.
So I did. For you. For the Internet. For us all.

OK, that’s probably enough grandstanding now that I duped you into following the jump. The fact is that the Prius—because of its shameless “green” pandering and electronic hypermile coaching (more on that later)—is an Internet villain, but it’s the type of villain that is completely unaware and thinks it’s a good guy.
So is it actually bad? Just overwrought? Splendid?
Let’s get some facts out of the way before we tackle that notion. The “C” in Prius C stands for “City” and this version is a smaller, five-door version of the popular sedan-ish regular Prius, except the C is intended for running about in urban areas. If you’ve been living in an automotive cave for the last 17 years, the Prius is a gas-electric hybrid car with a 1.5-liter, 73-horspower gas engine and a 60-horsepower electric engine that can solely power the car at low speed and low acceleration demand.
This, combined with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), means the car gets an EPA-rated 50 mpg combined (53 city/46 highway). There’s no real point in mentioning acceleration because if you’re buying a Prius, that’s the last thing on your mind. However, the Prius C has just enough power to not be dangerous when merging onto a freeway.
OK, enough of that. The first thing anybody is going to notice about the car Toyota loaned me was the color, an obnoxious shade of orange called Tangerine Splash Pearl that costs an additional $395 over the normal color palette. In fact, the Prius C I drove was the Prius C Four trim, which is the version with every option in the book, most notably a standard moonroof and fog lights. In the real world, the Prius C is an economy car based on the same platform as the Toyota Yaris so it’s hard to imagine anyone dropping $24,995 on a completely optioned-out econony car, but maybe it happens. The base model Prius C One starts at $19,540 with trim levels at $20,340 (C Two) and $21,765 (C Three).
On a practical level, the Prius C wasn’t really ideal for this relatively long-distance road trip. Cargo space is basically non-existent in the city car boot. As it was, my standard 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court luggage of a small suitcase, camera bag, laptop bag, backpack and a 12-pack of New Glarus’ Spotted Cow took up the entire trunk. The C Four’s standard equipment includes a split-folding rear seat, which would make it feasible for perhaps three moderately sized human beings to make a trip with small suitcases or backpacks, but a fourth person is simply not going to happen if you’re traveling with any kind of cargo whatsoever.
Driving the car at all is a strange experience; I’m used to a decade-old Ford Focus so wind noise and road noise—which the Prius C has in spades—and even the lack of engine noise at times really aren’t bothersome. What is annoying, however, are the strange sensations of overtuned electronic power steering and overboosted electric brake assist. The power steering allows you to turn the wheels one-handed while stationary, but on the road, you have no idea whatsoever what the tires are doing. While the Prius cornered pretty savagely with little body roll—in spite of the low-rolling resistance rubber on all four corners—the steering just felt wonky and unnatural. Maybe that’s something you get used to or maybe it’s something that makes the car uncomfortable on a wet road, an experience I was glad to have avoided.
The assisted braking felt vague and completely imprecise, which are generally characteristics you don’t want when you put your foot on the left pedal. From one to stop to the next, it somehow felt like the threshold moved and the notion of braking smoothly got chucked right out the window if you had to apply even moderate pressure. After a week with the car, I still hadn’t entirely figured out the braking.
That sounds like an awful lot of gripes, but basically, this was an attempt to find out what the Prius is and what it isn’t. It isn’t a highway cruiser, nor is it an enthusiasts’ car in the traditional sense. Neither of these facts are surprising. The Prius is, at its heart, an economy car. The interior is awash with cheap plastics, but so what? This is a tarted-up Yaris so who would expect anything else? The navigation is predictably mediocre and I’ll probably never get used to touchscreen music controls, but it’s amazing these are options at all in an economy car. We’re truly living in a glorious modern age of gadgets.
The gauge “cluster” slotted into the top of the dash and the digital displays can be useful or it can be distracting. And this is the crux of Prius ownership: How you use the digital displays probably defines how you drive it.
What do I mean? This is the Eco Score, one of the display options on the gauge strip. It tells you from one stop to the next how efficiently you’re driving based on your start from the stop, your cruising, and you’re stopping. Again, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the Prius’ “smug-meters.” This is it.
I tinkered with this on my morning commute one day and the highest marks are received for slow takeoffs that utilize the electric motors, for smooth cruising without much acceleration, and for long coasts up to stoplights. Incidentally, when acting as a judge on the LeMons Supreme Court, the near-silent electric motors are great for stalking through the paddock while looking for people doing dumb things like fueling the car with the engine on and so forth.
Anyway, if any of this sounds familiar, that’s because these are techniques of hypermiling, an automotive subculture obsessed with extracting the highest possible gas milage from their cars. I’ve generally found hypermiling an interesting subset of car people, namely because I think being a good driver entails mastering all aspects of a car’s mechanical components.
But here’s the nut of hypermiling: To do it right with something like a Honda CRX HF or a Geo Metro XFi, one has to be vigilant and situationally aware at all times. By making a hypermile-by-color car, Toyota has taken that situational awareness out of driving efficiently so that Prius drivers who operate the car simply by how their Eco score become rolling roadblocks with no awareness of it.
Ultimately, I found the Eco Score annoying, turned the display instead to a trip odometer, and drove my 32-mile commute—which is mostly on arterial surface streets—like I normally drive my Focus, which gets about 27 mpg on average. Here’s the mileage returned for my week with the Prius C:
Thursday: 53.4 mpg
Road Trip to Michigan: 44.0
Monday: 58.7
Tuesday: 57.4
Wednesday: 56.1
COMBINED: 46.2 miles per gallon, which was skewed by logging two-thirds of the miles on the highway, where speeds are high enough that the electric motor doesn’t run.
Just driving normally on surface streets at least doubles the fuel mileage of a ten-year-old compact car and only Wednesday did I discover I could run the car in EV-only mode under about 25 mph (so in my neighborhood) to extend the mileage, though it necessitates driving the car gingerly. As an economy car, it’s hard to ask for much else.
I will say this about all second-generation and later Priuses: They make easy studies in aerodynamics. [Author’s note: I’m totally not a scientist or an engineer.] The aerofoil shape makes it extremely slippery—something even more pronounced on the regular Prius and on Honda’s modern Insight—and the roofline overhang at the back channels air coming off that smooth shape over the low-pressure area that would otherwise produce a lot of drag.
I’m not enough of an aerodynamicist, however, to know if air flows as cleanly over the car’s unfortunate injured-rodent-begging-for-mercy faschia. That said, I’m pretty sure the black strip bisecting the grille acts as an air dam to reduce the amount of turbulent air caught in its opening with nowhere to go. The black plastic chin “spoiler” looks borrowed directly from hypermilers (and LeMoneers), who often use plastic garden edging to the same effect to reduce the amount of air under the car, a place that normally creates a lot of drag.
The rear wheels get a bit of aero treatment in front of them, ostensibly to reduce the amount of air going to the wheel well, another of the troublesome aerodynamic areas on all cars.
This concludes our brief aerodynamics lesson, taught by a total non-expert.
So what did I learn by meeting Our Villain? Look, I’m a cheap bastard so the allure of doubling my commuting fuel mileage is awfully tempting. It would certainly leave more room to spend money on an incredibly stupid crapcan racecar idea I’ve been harboring for a few years. Ultimately, the Prius C is better than my daily driver in nearly ever way, but I can’t foresee ever owning a Prius because of just how uncomfortable the vagueries are in important areas like the steering and brakes.
That said, I don’t think an efficient commuter is really out of the question, though I’d prefer something a bit more interesting like a clean, unmolested CRX HF (unicorn) or a first-generation Honda Insight.
Is it a villain? Well, no, the car itself isn’t, but the generally acute and easily stereotyped nature of many Prius drivers can be infuriating.
Look, here’s the deal with any Prius: You either want one or you don’t for reasons that are clear-cut in your mind. I won’t weigh into the decade-old debate on whether the Prius is environmentally friendly or not because, ultimately, that’s not the point. Purchasing anything that is claimed or even implied as an eco-friendly solution still has to make financial sense to the individual.
For the buyer looking at the Prius C, that means that they have to figure they’ll save $5,000 over the length of ownership over a similarly equipped Yaris (or any other B-Spec car, really). I can’t say if that’s a good deal or not because it really boils down to how the potential buyer is going to use their car and how long they’ll have it.
All that said, if you’re dead-set on buying a Prius C, I’d recommend the Prius Two trim, which comes standard with enough useful features—like the 60/40 split rear seats—to live up to its utilitarian hatchbackness. Toyota’s Prius C configurator spits out an MSRP of $21,165 for that (without the screaming orange paint) and while you don’t get push-button start or a moonroof options, you get a livable,  high-mileage city car.
There you have it, Internet. I met this little villain and I think I survived with my modicum of masculinity intact.
[All photos copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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  1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    I altered the GIP scores and I think it makes more sense now.
    2016 Corvette Z06 = 50.28
    2015 Mustang GT = 23.91
    2015 Toyota Camry XSE V6 = 8.61
    2016 Toyota Prius C Four = 3.96
    (2015 Kawasaki Ninja ZX14-R = 30.37)

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Minus one-half point for failure to show units in calculation.

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        View post on

        All ‘Murican units and Dollars.

        1. Citric Avatar

          Doesn’t NASA use the metric system though?

          1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

            Sure they do, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. And they didn’t use them to get to the moon, or at least not exclusively. They weren’t exclusively metric until the 1990s.
            And it reared its head again with the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter as the contractor was using non-metric values for thrust calculation.

        2. Sjalabais Avatar

          Great way to deliver the wrong message.

          1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

            There’s no wrong message. No one has adopted metric time either, but we all seem to be getting along fine.

          2. Fuhrman16 Avatar

            Wait, there’s a metric system for measuring time?

          3. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

            “Not only are the trains now running on time, they’re running on metric time. Remember this moment, people, eighty past two on April 47th, it’s the dawn of an enlightened Springfield.”

          4. mzszsm Avatar

            Base twelve instead of base ten makes much more sense for dates and times. I’ve never found anyone else that agrees with me though. You would have twelve months of thirty days each with two holidays spaced twelve days apart. At the end of the year there would be a big holiday of four or five days. While you are at it you might as well make the turn of the year spring/fall depending on hemisphere. Common time of day would be expressed as 1A:5B with a precision of about four of today’s seconds.
            At that point the world might as well make everything dozenal instead of decimal. Everyone already learns their multiplication tables to twelve but work out the multiplication table in dozenal and you see it is much simpler. Another nice thing is that your SAE wrenches become dozenal, for example five eighths becomes seventy-six dodozenth commonly written as 0,76. More over much of the things engineered today are easily accommodated because they tend to be divisibly by twelve evenly by the virtue that twelve is small superior highly composite number, for example fourteen-forty is evenly divisible by twelve.

          5. Tanshanomi Avatar

            I like the idea of a base 12 measurement for the time of day, but I disagree about the optimal calendar. Ideally, the year would be divided into 12 thirty-day months with each date always falling on the , with each quarter starting on a Sunday and ending on a Friday. There would also be a special holiday at the end of each quarter, which would be designated as a Saturday, but not part of any month. At the end of the year, there would be “World Day”, which would be neither a day of the week nor of any month. In leap years, Leap Day would be in essence an extra World Day halfway through the year.
            Calender reform proposals similar to this were seriously considered during the Industrial Revolution in the interest of efficiency, and they were actually getting traction until the First World War kind of deflated the momentum for international cooperation.

          6. mzszsm Avatar

            I didn’t write anything about seven day long weeks. Seven is prime and does not fit well into my scheme at all. Here’s how to write the dates without the years imagining trying to still use the month names used in US (which I would not encourage cause of other calendars and the year beginning on an equinox, just for illustrative purposes):
            000 001 002 003 004 005
            006 007 008 009 00A 00B
            010 011 012 013 014 015
            016 017 018 019 01A 01B
            020 021 022 023 024 025
            026 027 028 029 02A 02B
            030 031 032 033 034 035
            036 037 038 039 03A 03B
            040 041 042 043 044 045
            046 047 048 049 04A 04B
            050 051 052 053 054 055
            056 057 058 059 05A 05B
            060 061 062 063 064 065
            066 067 068 069 06A 06B
            070 071 072 073 074 075
            076 077 078 079 07A 07B
            080 081 082 083 084 085
            086 087 088 089 08A 08B
            090 091 092 093 094 095
            096 097 098 099 09A 09B
            0A0 0A1 0A2 0A3 0A4 0A5
            0A6 0A7 0A8 0A9 0AA 0AB
            0B0 0B1 0B2 0B3 0B4 0B5
            0B6 0B7 0B8 0B9 0BA 0BB
            100 101 102 103 104 105
            106 107 108 109 10A 10B
            110 111 112 113 114 115
            116 117 118 119 11A 11B
            120 121 122 123 124 125
            126 127 128 129 12A 12B
            130 131 132 133 134 135
            136 137 138 139 13A 13B
            140 141 142 143 144 145
            146 147 148 149 14A 14B
            150 151 152 153 154 155
            156 157 158 159 15A 15B
            160 161 162 163 164 165
            166 167 168 169 16A 16B
            170 171 172 173 174 175
            176 177 178 179 17A 17B
            180 181 182 183 184 185
            186 187 188 189 18A 18B
            190 191 192 193 194 195
            196 197 198 199 19A 19B
            1A0 1A1 1A2 1A3 1A4 1A5
            1A6 1A7 1A8 1A9 1AA 1AB
            1B0 1B1 1B2 1B3 1B4 1B5
            1B6 1B7 1B8 1B9 1BA 1BB
            200 201 202 203 204 205
            206 207 208 209 20A 20B
            210 211 212 213 214 215
            216 217 218 219 21A 21B
            220 221 222 223 224 225
            226 227 228 229 22A 22B
            230 231 232 233 234 235
            236 237 238 239 23A 23B
            240 241 242 243 244 245
            246 247 248 249 24A 24B
            250 251 252 253 254 255
            256 257 258 259 25A 25B
            260 261 262 263 (264)
            Notice some nice features. The first day of the year is 000 naturally. The next day in the same year is just the current day plus one in the dozenal arithmetic system. Every date ending in 6 is a holiday. Every date ending in 5 or B is a weekend. Every date beginning 26 is the extended yearly holiday.
            Anyway, that’s all showing that I simply thought way too much to be healthy about this in the past. Another nice aspect is the new Centigrade system. It has in fact one hundred forty-four (decimal) steps from the freezing and boiling points of water. So room temperature can conveniently be thought of as any temperature at least 20T but less than 30T (in base twelve of course), so that’s very nice as well – values of the form 2X.YZ…

          7. Tanshanomi Avatar

            I remember watching Dan Aykroyd doing a sketch on an early SNL about converting to metric time (the “Deci-clock”). It absolutely killed me…but then again, I was 13 at the time. (l just looked it up: Season 2 Ep. 2, September 25, 1976). Unfortunately, I can’t find a video of it online.

          8. mzszsm Avatar

            That may have been the inspiration to me for all this. Back in HS CC started re-airing all of the SNL episodes in order and I watched every one for quite some time. Anyway thanks for the fun here taking a road less travelled with me in the comments on an article that was a review about a hybrid car.

          9. Tanshanomi Avatar

            “…taking a road less travelled with me in the comments on an article that was a review about a hybrid car.”
            Part of what is so addictive about this place.

  2. Citric Avatar

    I drove one of these a few years ago and my enduring memory of it was that in town it was pretty neat and likable but once you got on the highway the wind and road noise was ridiculously loud.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      A bit weird with that excessive wind noise on an aerodynamically optimised car?

  3. marmer Avatar

    Yeah, I’ve ridden in one. One of the mileage strategies is to lighten the car as much as possible, eschewing all that noise-deadening material one expects in more substantial cars. They’re awful on the highway. But speaking of the CRX HF, one of my best friends had a bone stock ’87 model and a 50 mile highway commute. He got rid of it around 2000 with 346,000 miles when the driver’s seat was worn out beyond repair and the cost of fixing it was more than the car was worth. But he routinely got 50+ MPG. Damn, that little car was geared high!

    1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
      The Rusty Hub

      I want to say the HF is geared so that 70 mph runs the engine somewhere around 2000 RPM.

      1. marmer Avatar

        Sounds about right. And first gear was so high it took a careful foot to start from a stop.

      2. Vairship Avatar

        I still don’t understand why modern-day cars don’t do the same. Most need to churn 3000 RPM just to maintain normal freeway speeds. With today’s 6-and-up-speed gearboxes, surely it would be easy to run 2000RPM at 70mph?

  4. mzszsm Avatar
    mzszsm I got to drive an older one for a bit, back and forth between four driveways on the east side of town. The interior looked more like this. I rather liked it, mainly because it had a simple gear selector that I did not have to spend any time trying to figure-out. I don’t remember there being push-to-start either and I liked the simple radio it had too. It seemed a decent about town car.

    1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
      The Rusty Hub

      Push-to-start is only on the Prius C Three & Four now that I look at the options sheet. The interior layout is actually really good and intuitive; aside from the lack of noise and the CVT when the ICE kicks in, there’s nothing that makes it noticeably different from any other car.

  5. Alan Cesar Avatar
    Alan Cesar

    Wait wait wait. The split folding rear seats are optional on the Prius C? They’re standard on the Yaris. Even the $15,000 super-base model.

    1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
      The Rusty Hub

      They’re not on the base model Prius C (Prius C One), but they’re on the C Two and up. I find it hard to believe they sell very many C Ones at all. I would guess it’s mostly on the options sheet to make people feel like they’re getting a deal by buying “up” on the C Two for just another $1000.

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        Prius Fleet sales are almost 75% Ones, for all Prius models (City, Regular, Venti)

        1. The Rusty Hub Avatar
          The Rusty Hub

          That makes perfect sense.

  6. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    Having driven every model and generation of Prius I will tell you the brakes have consistently been the top complaint for owners and drivers. Imagine that the ones you experienced have 15 more years of development in them versus the Gen1 Prius.
    The way they worked in the regenerative system to slow down was weird and very bad for the driving experience. Decelerating from speeds over 25 you would apply the brakes and it would start to slow down, then at 25 it would grab hard as both the regenerative brakes and the brake pads are being used at that point. You felt like you were going to go through the dash every time and you hadn’t changed how hard your foot was on the pedal.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Hey, my cars must have regenerative brakes! All this time I thought it was just brake fluid leaking onto the friction surfaces.

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        Check cable stretch too, knowing your cars.

        1. mdharrell Avatar

          My only car with cable brakes is French, so I’m prepared to believe it can still find a way to leak brake fluid.

          1. mzszsm Avatar

            Now I understand, clearly the fact that olive oil is specified for the distributor cap was lost somewhere in the Italian -> Japanese -> English translations of the owners’ manual:

          2. mdharrell Avatar

            Distributor cap? Indeed, distributor? You must be thinking of some other vehicle.

          3. mzszsm Avatar

            a lot of good caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaars are Japanese…

          4. pj134 Avatar

            Yeah, but when we’re driving far I need my baby
            I need my baby next to me
            Thank you for reminding me that I need something with bench seats. I’d almost lost sight of that goal.

          5. Bradley Brownell Avatar
            Bradley Brownell

            This one has safety belts, but no stick shift…

          6. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

            I hear Chrysler LeBarons can be had with bench seats.

    2. salguod Avatar

      I have to say the brakes on my 2007 Prius Touring feel pretty normal. The steering, however, is every bit as numb and dangerous in slick conditions as the post implies. Hate it. And the lack of power. And the CVT. And the general buzziness. I do like the milage, build quality, reliability and the interior space, though.

  7. mad_science Avatar

    The Prius experience embodies the “commuting appliance” meme more than any other vehicle I’ve been in. They feel so un-car-like in every way.
    And that’s just a comment, not a value judgement. If your commute is a joyless slog, might as well use the minimum quantity of fuel to get it done. Save your Hooniverse Approved car from that treatment.

  8. Sjalabais Avatar

    Does anybody else see a lot of Ford Fiesta in the profile and front design? Possibly inevitable with the dictate of aerodynamics, but I had to look twice.

    1. mad_science Avatar

      Line up a pile of 5-door B-class vehicles and they all start to blend together.

  9. Stu_Rock Avatar

    I’ll tell you what’s splendid about the Prius C: that Tangerine Splash Pearl color. It makes me smile every time I see one.

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