[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
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]