LA JOLLA, CA – The final body-style variant of the Prius lineup – for now, anyway – is the subcompact Prius C, on sale in mid-March in the U.S.

Like last year’s family-focused Prius V wagon, the Prius C aims to fill a market niche.

In the case of the C, Toyota wanted to create a stylish, fun-to-drive hybrid for the younger generation and, perhaps most importantly, a hybrid they could afford.

Based on WardsAuto’s recent test drive here of the C, the auto maker has met its goals, with a few minor caveats.

The Prius C rides on the platform of the Toyota Yaris B-car. However, the new hybrid has a slightly longer wheelbase and is almost 4 ins. (10 cm) larger overall and 200 lbs. (91 kg) heavier.

While the new pint-sized Prius has the liftback’s familiar face – thin, wide upper grille, large lower grille – in profile it resembles the tall and narrow, lower-cost Yaris, not the fastback-styled, cachet-oozing liftback.

Parts of the Prius C's exterior are as much for function as fashion.

The lower grille opening is maximized for optimal airflow to the radiator, and combs on the taillights direct airflow, as do underbody covers, to help the C achieve a 0.28 drag coefficient. Shorter than the current third-generation liftback, it underperforms its sibling’s 0.25 Cd.

Due to size constraints, the Prius C uses Toyota’s decade-old 1.5L Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. gasoline engine, used previously in the second-generation liftback, instead of the current Prius’ 1.8L.

But the 1.5L gets the same cooled exhaust-gas recirculation as the 1.8L; the smaller engine also is beltless for reduced friction and maintenance costs, same as the 1.8L.

Other Prius C powertrain components are derived from the current, third-gen Prius but had to be reduced in size to fit in the smaller car.

The Prius C’s transaxle is 16% lighter than the liftback’s by eliminating the air-fluid-cooling radiator system. The rotation of the oil pump cools the automatic transmission fluid in the Prius C.

The Prius C’s inverter is 10% lighter than the liftback’s and is 12% smaller. It also is placed lower in the C’s engine compartment than in the liftback to achieve a low center of gravity.

The subcompact’s nickel-metal-hydride battery weighs 68 lbs. (31 kg) compared with 92 lbs. (42 kg) for the liftback’s pack. Nominal voltage is 144V, via 120 cells, compared with the liftback’s 168-cell 202V pack.

The C’s pack is below the rear seat, a location that frees up cargo space in the small car.

As an entry model, the Prius C has a torsion-beam rear suspension and trailing-drum rear brakes. However, as with the liftback, a MacPherson-strut-type suspension and ventilated rotors are installed up front.

To keep the Prius C flat in turns, handling stability braces are used in conjunction with the torsion beam, Toyota says.

The car’s rack-and-pinion electric steering has two different sets of ratios depending on tire size. Cars with standard 15-in. wheels have a ratio geared for maneuverability in the city, while the ratio on the Prius C Four grade with its optional 16-in. tires is for rapid response.

On the road, the Prius C's stiff suspension is immediately evident. The roads of greater San Diego are relatively smooth, so we shudder to think of driving the Prius C on pockmarked roads in Metro Detroit.

The younger and heartier Gen Y buyer may not mind the sport tuning, but for an older customer it could prove a body-beating deterrent.

The Prius C steers directly and provides a heavy feel. Acceleration is quick and responsive, although the small engine drones even going up minor hills, and the car remains flat, as advertised, in turns.

As in the liftback, it is easy to reach the C’s stated fuel economy, 50 mpg (4.7 L/100 km) combined. WardsAuto, driving normally and not for maximum fuel economy, returned 49.6 mpg (4.7 L/100 km) on a lower-speed, mountainous route.

A second urban-oriented trek that took us through downtown San Diego garnered 58.5 mpg (4.0 L/100 km). Yet, oddly, the freeway portion was the thriftiest part our drive, with an observed high of 61.5 mpg (3.8 L/100 km).

Our testing does not prove Toyota’s assertion that EV mode lasts longer in the C hybrid than in the Prius and Prius V, or that the C better tolerates accelerator mashing.

Any hint of aggressiveness here immediately switches on the engine, even with an almost-full battery and mild weather. As is the case with all Toyota hybrids, EV mode is possible only up to 25 mph (40 km/h) in the C.

Much of the Prius C’s interior is hard plastic, including the instrument panel and door panels. In high grades, door-panel front armrests have a fabric inset so thinly padded it might as well not exist.

At least interior designers put some thought into the IP’s surfaces, with multiple textures to disguise the plastic (although perhaps a tad too many – we counted four different grains).

Unique to the Prius C One are monoform seats with an integrated head restraint. Although sleek, these seats lack the support of the more generously cushioned seats of the Two and Three grades we tested.

Rear-seat roominess and legroom are limited, as in much of the segment. The center seat is best left for kids.

The Prius C gives drivers more feedback than any Prius thus far, via a new full-color multi-information display on the upper dash.

With the new Eco Savings screen, a driver can input the price of regular unleaded in his neighborhood and calculate his cost per mile, as well as key in another car’s fuel economy for comparison purposes. It’s handy information but, frankly, unnecessary.

The new hybrid is easy on a Gen Y buyer’s pocket book, starting at $18,950 for the Prius C One grade and topping out at $23,230 for the Prius C Four. The starting price is $4,570 less than the least-expensive liftback, which is notoriously hard to find.

The small Prius also compares favorably with the $18,350-$23,540 ’12 Honda Insight, hybrid which has the same wheelbase and width as the C but less passenger volume and, with a combined 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km), poorer fuel economy.

The middle grades, including the $19,900 Prius C Two and $21,635 Three, the latter with navigation and Toyota’s Entune infotainment system, aren’t much more expensive than similarly equipped grades of newer, non-hybrid subcompacts such as the Kia Rio, Ford Fiesta and Chevy Sonic.

Those cars have nicer interiors but lower fuel economy, especially in city driving, than the Toyota hybrid. B-car buyers will need to decide if ultimate gas-sipping or interior plushness is more important.

Toyota contends the Prius C, like the V, will make up nearly 20% of the total 220,000 Priuses it expects to sell in the U.S. in 2012. Most buyers are expected to choose the Two or Three grades.

At a time of lingering economic uncertainty and rising gas prices, the Prius C could find more takers than projected.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Toyota Prius C Three

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, hybrid 5-passenger hatchback

Engine:1.5L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head

Power (SAE net):73 hp @ 4,800 rpm (system total 99 hp)

Torque:82 lb.-ft. (111 Nm) at 4,000 rpm

Compression ratio:13.4:1

Bore x stroke (mm):75 x 85

Transmission: Continuously variable

Electric Motor: 60 hp, 125 lb.-ft. (169 Nm)

Wheelbase:100.4 in.(255 cm)

Overall length: 157.3 ins. (400 cm)

Overall width:66.7 ins. (169 cm)

Overall height: 56.9 ins. (145 cm)

Curb weight:2,500 lbs. (1,134 kg)

Price: $21,635 not incl. $760 destination and handling

Fuel economy: 53/46 mpg (4.4/5.1 L/100 km) city/highway

Competition:Honda Insight, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Smart ForTwo

Pros/Cons

Small and tossable           Body-beating

Prius face                         Yaris body

Attention to detail            Too much hard plastic