Toyota's new cheerful pocket-sized hybrid

David Linklater
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Even sensible small cars are subject to the peaks and troughs of fashion. When the Toyota Prius C was launched in 2012 it brought the company’s signature hybrid technology into the heart of the small-car market, in a package slightly larger than Yaris and slightly smaller than Corolla.

Problem is: three years on, the Prius C is only slightly successful, despite being NZ’s most affordable hybrid model. In 2014 the small hatchback segment was up 19 per cent on the previous year; Prius C was down 21 per cent.

Call it a mid-life crisis. So it’s facelift time for Prius C, with a range of design tweaks and equipment upgrades designed to put a bit of spark back into Toyota’s petrol-electric price leader.

The range continues in three tiers.

Well, more like two-and-a-half. The $30,830 entry model rides on 15-inch steel wheels, but spend a further $1000 and you can have same-size alloys, a configuration which Toyota NZ insists on listing as a separate model: Prius C With Alloys.

But it’s the flagship S-Tech tested here that needs the biggest boost. It’s gone from a third of Prius C volume at launch to just 9 per cent last year. Seems buyers really do just want NZ’s most affordable hybrid at the best possible price. Or perhaps there simply hasn’t been enough differentiation between the lower grades and the flagship version.

All Prius C models have new bumper and headlight designs, with LED lamps at the rear, and keyless entry/start. The S-Tech has a different grille and LED foglights, as well as a rear spoiler and extra garnish on the tailgate.

The new hero colour for the Prius range is a lurid green called Zest (pictured), although that’s not unique to S-Tech. You can also have it on the alloy-wheel model.
Inside, there’s less of the lurid colour, with dark tones dominating. The S-Tech has synthetic leather — think of it as really soft vinyl — on the seats and dashboard, more gloss black trim than the entry version and a different air-conditioning control panel. There’s voice control, power-folding side mirrors for tight parking spaces and privacy glass.

Mechanically, there’s been little change. The powertrain is carried over, with minor upgrades to the calibration of the electric power steering system and suspension struts/shock absorbers.

So the technology is familiar indeed; carrying over a well-proven powertrain is what enabled Toyota to produce such an affordable hybrid in the first place. It works in exactly the same way as the larger Prius: there’s a petrol engine matched to a battery pack and electric motor. The car can run just on the petrol engine, just on battery or a combination of the two as determined by the management computer.

You don’t have to do anything other than exercise a careful right foot — because if thrift is not your main concern then you might have purchased the wrong car. The car makes all the difficult powertrain decisions for you, giving maximum power when required for overtaking but also recharging the battery by any means possible: with the petrol engine, or recapturing the energy which would otherwise be lost in braking and deceleration.

You can select a push-button Eco mode that absolutely optimises the car for fuel efficiency, including careful management of the air conditioning when the car is stationary at traffic lights. There’s also a push-button EV (electric vehicle) mode that prioritises zero-emissions running, but in these days of plug-in electric cars it’s worth pointing out that Prius C will only run for about 2km on pure electric power and the EV mode cancels automatically at about 35km/h. It truly is just for cleaner running in traffic jams.

Prius C isn’t changing the world with any new technology in its facelift form. But it’s an endearing model all the same — arguably the most honest and enjoyable petrol-electric model in the Toyota range.

The styling is cheekier and less pretentious than other Prius offerings (it’s actually sold as a separate youth brand in Japan called Aqua) and because it’s not pretending to be anything other than an eco-conscious city car, there’s no reason to ask anything more of it.

Refinement remains an advantage of this technology in city driving, because you can spend so much of your time edging along in traffic on battery power. It can actually be a rude shock to have the 1.5-litre petrol mill erupt into life, roaring up and down the rev range as the continuously variable transmission does its thing.

It’s odd that Toyota has moved to make the interior a more sombre affair, but the cabin does retain some clever touches. The soft controls on the steering wheel for the information display, audio and air conditioning are touch sensitive and can produce a preview of the appropriate menu on the centre-console screen.

The information display itself can be cycled around several functions, including the obligatory energy monitor (which shows you how the hybrid powertrain is working in real-time), trip computer and a variety of green-themed readouts that rate your driving technique or show you how much money you’re saving.

Changes to Prius C are minor, but it retains a unique selling proposition in the small-car market. Its biggest problem is probably the Yaris, which is just $28,990 in flagship YR form and comes complete with satellite navigation and a reversing camera — two things a city-focused model such as Prius C would really benefit from.



ENGINE:1.5-litre petrol four with hybrid electric drive, 74kW/111Nm, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive, ADR economy 3.9 litres per 100km.

PROS: Hybrid technology on the cheap, cheerful demeanour.

CONS: Still a premium to be paid over conventional rivals, cabin changes seem sombre.


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