The 2016 Toyota Prius C Makes No Sense—And That’s the Appeal

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It’s about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistful of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,865 in there? Hey, congrats! That will net seven pairs of Ultrasone Edition 5 headphones, 1,346 audio copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 147 rolls of four-foot, heavy-duty ULine bubble wrap, or a new car at the nationwide average price. Part with $26,234 and you can slide into the 2016 Toyota Prius C, the smallest Prius and, by a surprisingly negligible margin, the least expensive of the sedan-wagon-hatch trio. Fitted with all the cameras and sensors but none of the power seat adjustments and precious little sound-deadening material, a Prius C pressure-tests a buyer’s priorities like few automobiles can.

Every engineering decision has been made in the service of the almighty MPG. Weight, powertrain, insulating foam—everything. This may seem self-evident; it’s a Prius, not a Raptor. But you never grasp how many compromises are bundled into those two Latinate syllables until you’re three hours deep into a road trip and you’ve yet to hear a distinct note from the stereo or anything below a mild shout from your wife. The Prius C may speak no evil, but if it did, you sure as shit wouldn’t hear it.

What one Prolecharian considers unpardonable levels of noise, vibration, and harshness may be considered fair penance for that gaudy 50-mpg combined EPA rating. And when you repeatedly see tank averages exceed 45 mpg, even with Prolechariot’s profligate throttle stabs and profound distaste for hypermiling, it’s enough to cultivate acceptance—however grudging—of such shortcomings. It’s a Prius, the temperate Prolecharian says. It’s not like other cars, and therefore shouldn’t be evaluated like other cars.

And yet some universal considerations apply. Does a Prius C represent good value? Does it feel well built? What surprises, pleasant and otherwise, can a buyer expect? And what, beyond one’s blinkered sense of ecological stewardship, might compel a buyer to pay the hybrid premium when gasoline prices show no signs of rising to their 2008 levels?

Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Toyota Prius C.

It’s in a Class of One

An enthusiast’s ready response to the Prius’ boffo fuel economy was always a Volkswagen Golf TDI. With torque-y goodness down low and none of those hybrid gewgaws mucking up its engine bay, a two-liter Golf TDI returned mileage on par with the Prius, but without the inherent compromises of a small, high-mpg vehicle. We all know how that turned out.

So the Prius troika remains Teflon, or at least until the Hyundai Ioniq (and, God willing, a Chevy Cruze diesel) hits dealerships later this year to challenge it. Small hatchbacks like Hyundai’s Accent, Toyota’s Yaris, the Nissan Versa Note, the Ford Fiesta, and Chevrolet Sonic may, on a very good day, return 40-plus mpg on the highway thanks to all manner of tall gearing, low rolling resistance tires, and grille shutters. To maximize their fuel economy, these cars also demand a style of driving that is utter anathema to Prolechariot.

A Prolecharian expects to overtake, to beat that soot-belching coal-roller off the line, to join a caravan of fleet left-laners—and to do these things without compromising a major piece of the purchase calculus.

The Prius C must be flogged, and flogged hard, to do these things. Such activities invariably result in a “bad” tank. But even a bad tank in a Prius C is significantly better than anything you’d experience in those other hatches on their best day.

The Prius C Is a Great City Car

Captain Obvious strikes again, you say. Yet if the C were kept entirely within city limits, shunning on-ramps for surface streets whenever possible, a typical owner might fill the 10-gallon tank once a month and never want for anything finer.

Like all Priuses, the C uses a battery-powered electric motor to get off the line. When the gas engine fires up, an electric generator is summoned to recharge the battery for the next sequence. Kinetic energy from braking is also captured and fed back to the battery. The Prius C achieves optimal fuel economy in this start-stop dance, i.e. in a city. That’s why the car’s urban fuel-economy figure, at 53 mpg, is higher than its highway number of 46.

With cargo volumes on par with the non-hybrid Yaris, the Prius C manages to swallow more behind its covered hatch than might seem possible. Prolecharians recognize the value of a free-to-use washing machine, and might pack two weeks’ laundry—plus baby, plus baby’s effects—into the C for a 300-mile drive. The C obliges.

Its ideal city, however, keeps its roads in some semblance of “navigable.” Over New York’s post-thaw frost heaves and freshly-punched potholes, the C betrays its compromises. The P195/50R16 tires’ generous sidewall seem the only thing softening blow after blow communicated through the wheel, the seat pan, your skull.

The Prius C Is No Highway Gobbler

Set aside for a moment the Prius C’s negligible quantities of sound-deadening material. Driving at sustained speeds above 60 mph is not the smooth, carefree exercise one might expect from a Toyota priced like a Camry or RAV4. In the swift, rollicking, deeply wooded bends of Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, holding steady throttle and keeping wheel inputs smooth, the C felt…involved. That’s fine if the C stands for Caterham, but sensing the Prius’s steering rack laboring to hold its line, the body loading up the outboard tires, and the puckering sense of a tiny hatchback tipping on its axis will disabuse Prolecharians of pushing the ship much above the posted limits.

On arrow-straight highway, wind and road wash resemble the output from a white noise machine. Exiting the C at a rest area, the sound stays in a driver’s ear.

Toyota can, and does, do better. The Yaris feels hushed by comparison, and is $8,000 less dear when comparably equipped. Which is to say…

A Prius C Might Never Pencil

When the nationwide average price for a gallon of gasoline pushed $4.11 in 2008, the Prius came into its own. Rarely has a car seemed more appropriate for its place and time. Even the unintended-acceleration hysterics of 2009 and 2010 couldn’t slow the hybrid’s ascent. The C hatch and V wagon followed in 2011, when a gallon of 87-octane in major metropolitan areas still flirted with $4. For the foreseeable future, those days are over.

Ready for real talk? Presuming $2.50/gallon gas, a Prius C would not begin making financial sense over a comparably equipped Yaris until you’d driven 421,000 miles. Last we checked, that’s a long way.

A Prius C Purchase Is Not Always Borne of Logic

Though it works diligently to prove otherwise, a Prius is not an appliance. If it were, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Díaz, and Julia Louis Dreyfus’s masseuse character in 2013’s criminally underrated Enough Said would not make a point of driving them. Priuses are totems to our better selves, the ones that volunteer at adult-literacy programs and convert their lawns to vegetable gardens—the ones that forego a burger and instead channel that craving into an extra set of crunches. Prius, Prius C, Prius V—they’re all cloaked in the same virtuous gauze.

Virtue is free to cultivate, of course, but look at what people will pay to project it. An “Astor” etched in the Met’s marble, a “Koch” bolted above the entrance to Lincoln Center. Here be patrons of the arts, such acts proclaim. But the buyer of a Prius C is perceived as a patron of the Earth, and for just $8,000 over a comparably equipped Yaris. For such customers, that premium—and those 421,000 miles—look pretty damn reasonable.

2016 Toyota Prius C

PRICE (as tested): $26,234

POWERTRAIN: 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, Hybrid Synergy Drive system, 99 combined hp, 124 lb-ft combined torque; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive

MPG: 53 city / 46 highway