2018 Toyota Prius C Review: The City-Dweller's Hybrid With Sporty Styling (But No Real Sportiness)

The smallest Prius is perfect for those tight parallel parking spots, but not for people with the need for speed.

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Toyota Prius C Four.

I was driving through my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope in the Prius C, windows down, enjoying the summer, when a middle-aged man on an electric bicycle pulled up alongside me and asked, joyfully, “Is that a Prius?” Shocked, as I wasn’t expecting any attention in this car—especially hot on the heels of the BMW i3, which got plenty of looks—I said yes. He gushed over the design, how it must be brand new, and how “awesome” it was. Finally, after hearing the price and that it was in fact, very new, he said, “Wow, well, go places!” before taking off. Was he quoting Toyota’s slogan, or just saying I should take advantage of the 48 miles per gallon?

Toyota Priuses (or Prii, as I lovingly like to call them in plural form), are hands down the most recognizable hybrid cars on sale, thanks to their trademark excellent fuel economy and city-car versatility. Drive a hybrid? Your friends probably picture a Prius, even if you have something else. Every Lyft I've ever hailed in Los Angeles ends up being a Prius. This Toyota, like it or not, has been the hybrid car of record, even with its sloth-like drive and love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic. Put me closer to the former category with this new one; before Smart ForTwos became the small, eco-friendly nerd-mobiles of choice in the U.S, the Prius held the title, yet I can't deny that the refreshed 2018 Prius C makes a pretty great impression when you first walk up to it.

The Prius C is the smallest, cheapest, and least powerful of the model lineup. It may not be a "driver's car," but it's certainly economical enough that even self-proclaimed car lovers might consider it—especially those who live in a congested city like New York, but still need wheels for long journeys. So for a weekend trip from Brooklyn to Baltimore, what better car to put to the test than the Prius C Four? After all, a four-hour drive is way more enjoyable with fewer refueling stops.

Erica Lourd

The Pros:

  • Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike is never fun, but using only a half tank of gas during the four-hour drive certainly made it better. The trip back would’ve been the same deal, but the typical northbound Sunday afternoon stop n' go traffic crushed that highway mileage average. Either way, only having to stop once at a dreaded NJ gas station (I've never been a fan of having to wait for someone to pump my own gas) was a huge plus. On top of that, because the tank is only 9.5 gallons, the Prius C is cheap to fill up. 
  • Although the fun-sized Prius's styling hasn’t changed much since it debuted in 2012, the front end has gotten a much needed refresher; the C's long, pointy headlights and sporty split grill seem to take inspiration from the Ford Focus—and I must say, it wears it well. The update meshes well with the bright orange paint of the one I drove—it makes this car as much of an eye-catcher as a Prius can be.
  • The interior is blessedly jammed full of convenient small-item storage areas. There's a small slit directly in front of the steering wheel perfect for storing away your phone, sunglasses, or whatever your heart desires. And there's a deeper cellphone-holding cubby built into the dash in front of the passenger seat directly next to the AUX and USB ports, which turned out to be great for keeping cords tucked away. 
  • Simple, straightforward climate controls are something I don't take for granted enough. In luxury cars, just adjusting the temperature can get complicated, but the Prius C's system only has a handful of buttons, making it easy to operate. There are even butt warmers...and although it's summer, I tested it out. Not surprisingly, it was hot. 
  • Because the C is the smallest of the Prii lineup, I was, for once, looking forward to parking it by my apartment. (Parking in Brooklyn is no joke.) It didn't disappoint. Spots that would be just a smidge too small for most cars, even compacts like my old '07 Nissan Sentra, were just right for the Prius C. And with the aid of the backup camera, parking in those tight city spots was a breeze. 
Erica Lourd

The Cons:

  • The C's technology is a weak spot. My colleague Josh Condon drove the 2018 Prius Prime a few months back, and based on his account, I was under the impression there would be a good amount of future-facing safety and infotainment technology in my Prius. However climbing into the C felt like stepping into a time capsule from 2012, considering how dated and low-tech it feels. (But considering the $7,000 price difference between the C and the Prime...hey, you get what you pay for.)
  • The absolute lack of any power is a massive issue. The meager output (the whole system makes just 99 horsepower in total) makes merging onto a highway, especially with a short on-ramp, borderline dangerous. My foot went to the floor every time I had to merge or change lanes.
  • There's very little cargo room. Don't expect to have an easy time if you're carrying more than a few small bags; with 17 cubic feet of space in the trunk, you can't expect a lot to go into the little C. Even trying to fit adults in the backseat is a little tough; every occupant, including the driver, needs to be less than five-foot-seven for a long ride to be comfortable. 
  • The interior is extremely bare-bones. The lackluster steering wheel feels thin, light, and cheap;the slight squish of the material followed by the laggy response when pressing the volume buttons on it made me wonder what year I was in.
  • Every time I pulled a bottle bigger than 12 ounces out from the cupholders in front of the shifter, I hit it against the bottom of the dash. Why would Toyota shape the space in a way that it takes the utmost concentration (not to mention attention taken away from the road) just to take your drink out of the cupholder? 
  • I kept accidentally referring to the Prius C as a Yaris—because the speedometer and any relevant information for the driver, is in the center of the dashboard. (Not to mention the similarity in size—which makes sense when you discover it's built on a modified version of the Yaris platform.) It's another detail that makes the car feel cheaper. As much fun as the little cubbies were in front of the driver, I would trade them out for the gauges in front of me in a heartbeat.
  • The stereo is pretty bad. I'm guilty of always pushing the bass to the maximum and playing hip-hop or dubstep in every press car. (I like to think of it as professional research.) In the Prius, you have to turn the dial all the way up to 10 to make it even close to loud...and that just makes me sad.
Toyota

The Toyota Prius C Four, Ranked:

Performance: 2

Comfort: 3

Luxury: 1

Hauling people: 2

Hauling stuff: 2

Curb appeal: 4

“Wow” factor: 2

Overall: 2/5

Erica Lourd

The Bottom Line:

The Prius C is the hybrid you buy if you're strictly a city dweller. One could say that about every Prius, but it rings particularly true for the C since it's so stress-free to park. Normally, parking in Brooklyn is nothing short of a nightmare, but I didn't struggle once—and by the end of the week, that practically made up for the things I didn't like. There are few things worse than going home at the end of a long work day, only to have the day stretch out even longer because you have to circle around 20 minutes looking for a parking space before winding up a half mile from your apartment. And it may not be sporty by any means, but the C is the sportiest-looking Prius of the lineup—probably why I got so many looks while cruising around. 

The Prius C Four, the model we tested, starts at $24,965; but if pushing $25K is too much for your budget, the Prius C One starts at $20,630. That low price still gets you plenty of features...and most importantly, an ideally-sized vehicle for urban parking.. Will you go fast? Not at all. But will you pay way less for gas? Oh, yeah.

The 2018 Toyota Prius C Four, By the Numbers:

Base Price (Price as Tested): $24,965 ($26,779)

Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline-four, 73 horsepower, 82 pound-feet, electric motor, 60 hp, 125 lb-ft (total output 99 hp); continusouly variable automatic; front-wheel drive

Fuel Economy: 48 city, 43 highway

Wheelbase: 100.4 inches 

Number of times I referred to the color as "The Drive Orange:" At least five