The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way

Posted on May 26th, 2012 in diesel,Economy,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think the new Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way.

I write that with a rather heavy heart: anyone who has read my stuff over a long period will know that I previously embraced and relished hybrid technology.

The first hybrid I ever experienced, around the year 2000, was an NHW10 grey-market Japanese import Prius – it blew me away with its refinement, quality and fuel economy.

Back in 2003 I new-car-tested a hybrid Honda Insight – we did 3,500 kilometres in four days. The fuel economy? Just 3.6 litres/100km. The original Insight is the most fuel-efficient car ever sold in Australia.

In 2004 I tested an NHW20 Prius over 5,400 kilometres in seven days; I then called it one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.

As a magazine tester of new cars (a role I no longer play) I also drove two models of the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the hybrid Lexus GS450H, Lexus RX400h and Lexus 600hL.

I own a first gen Honda Insight, and for years I owned an NHW10 Prius that I first supercharged, and then turbocharged.

But I’m not wedded to hybrid technology.

My current main car is a mildly-modified 2008 Skoda Roomster 1.9 turbo diesel. It gets fuel economy in my use that varies from the high-fours (in litres/100km) to about 6 litres/100km. And that from a relatively old and low-tech diesel design.

I haven’t driven the current model Prius, but I’ve experienced a Camry Hybrid- and wasn’t much impressed. The fuel economy wasn’t outstanding, and the car drove with an uninspiring feel.

But with the release of the Prius C, I thought that things might be very different.

The lightest (1120kg) and cheapest (AUD$23,990) hybrid Toyota sold in Australia, the Prius C has an official fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100km. That’s the same as its big brother Prius – but surely that must be a quirk of the testing system… with the C’s smaller size and mass, and lower total power, surely there’d be a benefit to real-world fuel economy?

And boasting a host of advanced technologies – including a new inverter, motor and battery – you’d expect that this to be as good in fuel economy as a hybrid Toyota gets.

Well that might be the case – but unfortunately, these days, it just isn’t good enough.

Today I visited a Toyota dealership. It wasn’t with just prurient intent: if the car did what it was supposed to, I was quite prepared to buy one.

The presented i-Tech model (a higher trim level that costs $26,990) was OK inside, although definitely nothing outstanding. The interior room was alright (a tall adult could sit [j-u-s-t] behind a tall driver); the digital instruments were clear; the seats comfortable; the load area pretty small (and the rear seats fold to give a pronounced step in the floor); and the double-DIN upgrade nav looks like it should cost only about $400 through eBay.

But hey, it’s a small car that isn’t priced at luxury levels.

On the road, with three adults and a seven-year-old in the car, the transmission refinement was good, the steering welcomingly much heavier in feel than previous Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, and the power was – well, a bit disappointing. The last Prius I drove, now an old-model NHW20, could on green lights wheelspin its way across intersections – the current Prius C had not remotely enough low-down torque to do that. But, again, it was OK – but definitely not scintillating.

But the fuel economy? Oh dear.

In a gentle drive, about a third through urban conditions and the rest on 80 and 100 km/h freeways, the car massively disappointed. It started off at about 6 – 7 litres/100 (not a problem; it was a cold start) and then gradually dropped to about the mid-Fives. With the ultra-economy mode then engaged, it continued to drop – reaching a low of 4.6 litres/100 and then rising finally for a trip average of 4.7 litres/100 for the 20-odd kilometres.

Well, isn’t 4.7 litres/100 really good?

Only if you have no better comparisons…

My 1999 (read that again – 1999, that’s 13-year-old technology!) Honda Insight in similar conditions would, I’d guess, be in the mid-Threes – but that’s in a car that is much smaller (only two seats) and is also much lighter. So in many respects it’s not a fair comparison.

But what about my Skoda Roomster? It weighs about 200kg more than the Prius C, has much better performance, vastly more interior space – and like the Prius C, has 5-star crash test safety.

Since we’d taken the Roomster to the dealer, I immediately drove exactly the same road loop just undertaken in the Prius C. We didn’t have the salesman aboard, but apart from that, the conditions were as identical as it was possible to make them – same speeds, same roads, same traffic.

And the fuel economy of the Roomster? It came in at 4.9 litres/100km.

Seeing those figures: 4.7 for the cutting edge, small, 2012-model hybrid Prius C, and 4.9 for the much larger, old fashioned 2008-model diesel Roomster, suggests to me that in the real world, plenty of current small diesels will match the fuel economy of the Prius C.

For me, the Prius C could not be justified in any way as a replacement for my existing car – the Roomster.

And so then you wonder – for whom would the Prius C be justifiable over other fuel-efficient cars? After all, why buy a car that is demonstrably far more complex, and has a battery pack that will one day fail, when the raison d’etre of the hybrid – fuel economy – is no longer stunningly better than the others?

The above statement really indicates that Toyota has lost its way: that the hugely innovative and technologically incredibly brave step that occurred with the release of the NHW10 Prius at the end of 1997, the move that saw car makers the world-over stare in disbelief and then turn towards hybrids – well, that technology is now more about selling cars on a gimmick rather than through demonstrable real-world advantage.

What a bloody shame.

9 Responses to 'The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way'

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  1. Tom Currie said,

    on May 28th, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Take heart! If you spent a bit more time with the Prius C, learned how to drive it, and drove it on (city) routes where the hybrid system would be of some use, I think you would find it is capable of delivering much higher fuel economy figures than your Skoda. A reviewer for the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax, Canada, recently obtained an average fuel economy of 3.5l/100km over 1 weeks testing. I have owned a Prius C for about 7 weeks, and it took me about 5 weeks (1400km) to figure out how to drive it in the city so as to achieve those levels. I now routinely get 3.2 to 3.5 l/100km in city driving (pump corrected) , and 4.0 l/100km on the highway at 100km/hr (no operational experience required there, because the gas engine runs 100% of the time).
    As for the 1st generation Honda Insight, that vehicle has been described as a rolling laboratory. It was a lightweight two-seater which would not have come close to pass any of the modern crash test safety standards, and barely had enough cargo room to carry a case of beer (I tried it!). It had exceptional highway fuel economy because of its ecellent aerodynamics, but I doubt it would beat a Prius C for city fuel economy. The new Honda Insight hybrid does not come close to the Prius C in fuel economy measured precisely under controlled conditions.
    I also would not underestimate the fuel economy of your older Skoda engine/vehicle compared to newer designs. Newer designs must meet much more stringent emissions regulations in most jurisdictions, and fuel economy is suffering as a result. Cars must also be made much heavier to get good crash test ratings at reasonable cost. Just take a look at historical fuel economy trends for a ubiquitous car such as the VW Jetta TDI on, 6.1 l/100km average in 21012 compared to 5.5 l/100km in 1999

  2. Marty said,

    on May 29th, 2012 at 9:13 am


    Why should you “learn” to drive it? – it’s a car, you should drive it normally (none of this hyper-mile bullshit) to achieve decent economy..

    I have a 13 year old 323i bmw that if i wanted to, i could achieve low 6’s… (not bad for a 2.5L petrol 6 with not much fuel saving technology – apart from a high compression ratio) but i’d be ridiculously slow on take-off and a menace on the roads.

    This was (as best a short test drive can be) a real world comparison between cars If Julian wanted to, he COULD have driven his Roomster (and the Prius) differently to achieve better economy, but economy is not the only reason we drive, if it was then don’t drive at all – how is 0L/100 for you!

  3. doctorpat said,

    on May 29th, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    So is the problem that Toyota has not (no doubt for reasons that seem compelling inside the corporation) combined diesel and hybrid?

    Meanwhile, out in the land of low tech, I recently swapped my 98 Falcon Ute ECU and intake manifold for one from a XR6, and seem to have saved something like 2 to 3 L/100km. I’m stunned by the result, I just did it for the performance.

  4. Huw said,

    on May 30th, 2012 at 6:55 am

    I am a fan of both VW diesels and prius hybrids. (I have a 07 2.5tdi caravelle and a 01 nhw11 prius. It’s worth considering that the diesels, while very fuel efficient, torquey and civilised, also have very delicate fuel injection systems, particulate exhaust filters, and dual mass flywheels. All of these systems are expensive to fix if they fail (and according to various websites they do), a far cry from the old fashioned smelly diesels, and if they do fail you are stuck. Many are also manual trans too, which is not to everyones taste.

    The Prius is undoubtedly complex, but has proved to be immensely reliable worldwide over the last decade, battery capacity loss does not necessarily stop the car, and actual failure seems fairly unusual. It’s automatic too. Personally, having been very keen on the VW, I now prefer the Prius most of the time for its effortless ease of use. A shame we amateurs can’t hack it like the first generation insight. I was very interested in the turbo conversion Julian did to the NHW10, but that looks like too much work for me.
    Obviously the Caravelle and Prius are very different sizes, but the VW costs roughly twice as much in fuel per mile

    I suspect that the Volt/ampera will be the way of the future if it can be made affordable. If it proves to be anything like as reliable as the Prius, It will be a good buy at ten years old like my Prius.
    At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice, and no doubt arguments will rage as usual

  5. Richard said,

    on May 30th, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Is Toyota persisting with these small hybrids because they have no competitive diesel engines?

    Hyundai now provides a diesel engine in both the Accent and new i30 for a reasonable price. They would probably be much nicer to drive than the Prius C.

    The other problem with the C is the equivalent Yaris. The Yaris is already fairly economical.. why wouldn’t you buy that and pocket the difference?

  6. Ben said,

    on May 30th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    So in essence, toyota are selling this new “C” because it’s easier to park and cheaper than the regular model? That’s about as much progress as mentioned here and is not to be applauded.

    Much better would be the new prius C as a series hybrid (hey it’s a city car, stop pretending you need a mechanical power path for what is effectively an exercise in regen braking)

  7. Julian Edgar said,

    on June 2nd, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Then today I drove Prius I-Tech, Honda CR-Z and Golf Bluemotion. All got worse fuel economy than Roomster! However, the Prius impressed.

  8. Marty said,

    on June 4th, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Our golf (2.0 TDi) is getting noticeably better fuel economy after 100,000kms than when it was new… how big is the difference Julian? Perhaps it’s just because these engines are new and not run in….

    The economy in the Golf is better again after having to replace the EGR valve and flap (oh – don’t pay $500+ from VW, get genuine the part from the UK, delivered, for about $250)

  9. Matt King said,

    on June 6th, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Comparing fuel economy numbers of petrol and diesel cars is fallacious, unless your only limiting factor is an equally sized fuel tank.

    The real comparisons should be either cost ($/litre x litres/100km – comparable in Australia but vastly different in other countries, diesel usually being cheaper) or emissions output (CO2 primarily, for which the diesel is worse due to its higher density).