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Prius' kid brother is much more loveable

It happens in every family: there are some people you don?t really care for all that much, and some you like.

That?s the case with the Prius C, one of two 2012 hybrids Toyota has introduced alongside its original Prius hatchback (the other is the Prius V wagon). I don?t care for the Prius, but I do like the Prius C.

Where the Prius feels heavy, the C is light and nicer to drive. It?s much better looking. It feels more like a real car, with its conventional gearshift lever in place of the Prius? awful tap-lever, and it doesn?t have that constant, annoying beep that the Prius grinds out, inside the car, whenever it?s in Reverse. This one trusts me to remember what gear I?m in.

The C is also the entry level model of the family, starting at $20,950 for the base, and rising to $23,160 for my Technology Package-equipped tester, which includes navigation, pushbutton start, and ?tracer? controls that use round iPod-style buttons on the steering wheel to operate the in-dash information screen.

A Premium Package adds a sunroof, fog lamps, heated fake leather seats, and a leather dash cover, for $25,340.

By comparison, the Prius and Prius V run between $25,995 and $36,875.

Meanwhile, the conventional Yaris hatchback, which provides some of the Prius C?s platform and suspension, ranges from $13,990 to $19,990, but with higher fuel-consumption numbers. You can certainly make the argument that the lower buy-in more than makes up for the extra gas, and even with the savings at the pump, hybrids do take longer to make back their initial cost. It really all comes down to whether you want the hybrid enough to pony up the difference in the showroom.

Be aware that it?s definitely not a powerhouse. None of the Prius models are, but the C is the baby of the bunch, intended primarily as a city runabout.

It uses a 1.5 L four-cylinder engine that, when mated to the electric motor in its hybrid system, provides a combined net rating of 99 horsepower. The other two Prius models use a 1.8 L that combines for 134 hp.

If there?s any great disappointment, it?s that the C?s fuel economy figures are virtually the same as those of the larger, more powerful, original Prius. Console yourself with the lower price and the better handling.

The C?s base price knocks the Honda Insight off its perch as the country?s least-expensive hybrid, since that model starts at $21,990. And, unlike the Prius C, the Insight?s electric motor primarily assists the gasoline engine and can?t crawl along in traffic on its battery alone. Toyota?s hybrid system is among the best, automatically switching seamlessly between gas and electric, or a combination of the two, as needed. You don?t plug it in: the battery charges itself as you drive.

There?s an ?Eco? mode button, which cuts back on the throttle and air conditioning to improve fuel economy. It saps some strength, but not so much that you?re seriously holding up traffic.

There?s also an ?EV? button, which keeps it in electric-only at low speeds. Toyota says it?s useful when you?re crawling along, such as in a parking lot. But since the gasoline engine usually cuts out when you?re driving slowly enough ? and the EV mode switches off automatically if you press too hard on the throttle, and it doesn?t take much ? the button usually promises more than it delivers.

The interior is typical economy car, with seats that are fine for short trips, but not supportive enough for long ones. The asymmetrical dash design is neat enough, but Toyota really needs to stop making its hybrid dashes from a mishmash of various colours and textures (the ?tufted? plastic on the passenger side is just plain weird). There?s a point where it stops looking funky, and just looks cheap.

There are a couple of other places where the C feels low-rent. The doors are tinny, and the large dial for the temperature control wobbled in its housing.

Still, you don?t get something for nothing, and if you?re going to get a full hybrid system, automatic climate control, navigation, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and alloy wheels for 23 grand, there will be some trade-offs.

There is a great deal of small-item storage up front, and the USB connector is thoughtfully placed inside an open cubby with a clip to manage the cord. Cupholders are out of the way, and the vents are easy to open and close.

The rear seats fold flat but with a slight bump where the seatbacks meet the cushions, opening the cargo area from a length of 66 cm when they?re up, to 135 cm when they?re down.

The Prius C has its limitations, but compared to its bigger brother, it costs less, it?s much better to drive, and it doesn?t look as geeky. If you?ve always wanted a hybrid, but you don?t like the Prius, this may well be the car for you.

2012 Toyota Prius C

PRICE: $20,950-$25,340, as-tested, $23,160

ENGINE:
1.5 L four-cylinder with hybrid system

POWER/TORQUE: 73 hp, 82 lb.-ft., gas/electric combined: 99 hp

FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: City 3.5, hwy. 4.0, as-tested 4.7

COMPETITION: Honda Insight/CR-Z, Toyota Prius

WHAT?S BEST: Nicer to drive than the bigger Prius.

WHAT?S WORST: No fuel improvement over the bigger Prius.

WHAT?S INTERESTING: The C stands for City.

  • Prius' kid brother is much more loveable

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