The New “Baby” Toyota Prius

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2012 Toyota Prius c.

If you need a tissue, you probably reach for a “Kleenex,” no matter what brand may be in the box. Same goes for a “Q-tip,” even though there are other kinds of cotton swabs. And if you make a copy of a document, you may be inclined to say you’re going to “Xerox” it, no matter what brand of copier may come into play.

In the world of cars, the same kind of brand identity could also be associated with the Toyota Prius. Say the word “hybrid” to most people, and the car they’ll likely picture in their heads is the compact, funny-shaped gas-electric car that Toyota has sold over a million of in the United States alone.

Yes, Prius is almost a brand in and of itself. Though not marketed under a separate identity like Toyota’s Scion line, the case could be made that Prius is deserving of the same situation.

While there are no separate Prius dealerships (at least not yet), there are now several distinct Prius models within the Toyota family. There’s the regular Prius, a larger variant called Prius V, and soon you’ll be seeing a smaller, less expensive model called the Prius c. (There will also be a plug-in Prius later this year, but that’s in a conventional Prius body.)

For the c, Toyota decided that there may be buyers who want something more compact and nimble than the regular Prius (which they like to label as “the liftback” now that there are others). Coming in about the same size as the company’s Yaris subcompact, the Prius c definitely looks the part of a baby brother to the original.

The other intended audience to for the car is those buyers looking to get into the hybrid world for as little money as possible. Base price for the Prius c is just a tick under $19,000, which beats the standard Prius by about $4500. Even if you move up to the highest-content trim level Five (Toyota number-names the trim levels on the Prius family One through Five), you’re under $24,000.

The base model, called Prius c One, is by no means a stripper. Standard amenities include automatic climate control, steering wheel audio buttons, and a very clever series of displays to help you maximize your driving style to save fuel. This car is really a miser’s dream.

The EPA rates the Prius c at 53 mpg in city driving, beating the Prius liftback by two miles per gallon. As with all of Toyota’s hybrid vehicles, it uses a dual-mode system whereby the electric motor can propel the car along at low speeds by itself before the gasoline engine starts up and kicks in. There’s even a button for “EV Mode” where you can stay electric-only for short distances, provided the battery has sufficient charge.

The little Prius may be small but it’s artfully packaged. The hybrid battery is nestled beneath the rear seat, rather than behind it, in order to maximize luggage capacity. Just enough room in back for urban living or a weekend getaway. And while the rear seat is compact-car-cramped for most adults, the fronts are plenty roomy, even for tall folks.

As for how it drives, well, it drives like a Prius. People can decide for themselves whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Hybrids drive like ultra-efficient cars, not sports cars. Still, the Prius c could be considered slightly sporty as hybrids go.

Toyota already has a big head start on the rest of the auto industry with the Prius as well as its other hybrid models. Spreading the brand around to include larger and smaller vehicles is a smart move. Now, if you go into Toyota showrooms and ask to see the Prius, you may be asked, “Which one?”

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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