For a model that started the ball rolling for mass market petrol/electric hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius is a motoring icon in its own right.
Toyota executives took a calculated leap of faith when they launched the first generation Prius in 1997 at a time when hybrids were still considered novelty items – the stuff you tend to see more in concept form at a motorshow.
The gamble has paid off, as today, some 15 years later, more than three million units have been sold worldwide and the Prius is now into its third generation.
While the Prius sways a little to the “premium” offerings at RM139K, the recently launched “junior” version called the Prius c is extremely tempting and costs some RM40,000 less.
In case you are wondering what c means, well, Toyota will give you four answers – Compact, Clean, Clever and City – which is how the car maker sums up its little upstart.
Having tested the third generation Prius when it was first introduced here in 2009, my expectations of the Prius c were high.
Upon taking the car from UMW Toyota Motor in Shah Alam, plans for a long distance road trip were already forming inside my head to finish off the full tank of fuel inside the five-door hatchback.
The sudden craving for some nyonya fare on a Saturday morning saw me head south to Malacca in the Prius c with the missus and our little girl.
For a start, the Prius family looks are evident – it has a little nose-like bump on the bonnet and a trapezoid lower grille within a wedge-shaped body designed for aerodynamic efficiency.
Running on the similar parallel/series hybrid drive technology found in the Prius, the Prius c’s system is more compact – a 1.5-litre 73bhp/111Nm engine coupled with a 61hp/169Nm electric motor.
The Prius c’s engine comes from the Toyota engine family line-up which includes the engine for the Vios model. The engine has however been modified to run on the higher compression Atkinson cycle which is more fuel efficient.
The battery is the nickel metal hydride-type with an output of 19.3kW and stored under the rear seats.
Inside, the steering wheel design, the futuristic styled dashboard with centre instrument cluster featuring a multi-information display (MID) and digital gauges and speedometer are reminiscent of the bigger Prius.
The graphics and charts of the Prius c’s MID are in colour instead of black-and-white and certainly make it friendlier and less intimidating for non-techno geeks to understand the multitude of information displayed.
Although the interior is much tighter due to the car’s compact nature, it still offers enough space and leg room as a daily urban ride.
Younger buyers will appreciate the car’s breezy feeling dual dark and light-tone interior.
The car’s roofline slopes gently towards the rear for good aerodynamics. Unfortunately this inflicts a minor headroom problem for rear passengers who are above the average height.
That did not bother the missus seated at the back although she noticed that it’s lower than her Perodua Myvi.
Though Prius c’s hatchback shape is not as slippery as the more streamlined Prius’ benchmark setting co-efficient of drag at 0.25, it still gets a respectable 0.28.
Toyota has installed mini “aero-stabilising fins” on the Prius c’s wing mirror arms and tail lights, and a little rear under bumper diffuser to smoothen air flow around the car.
I was hoping for the unique tiny gear shifter of the full-sized Prius but the one in the Prius c, except for its decorative blue knob, looked no different from any other automatic car.
Push the Start/Stop button of the dashboard to “start” the Prius c. A “ready” indicator on the dashboard tells you that car can be driven off any time when gear is slotted to “D”.
You won’t hear the engine cranking up like a normal car as the Prius c takes off on electric power. It creeps forward with a mild electrical motor hum. Only the low noise of the tyres grating the tarmac breaks the near silence.
The petrol engine fires up at higher speeds and is hardly noticeable when it does so.
While most people would not buy a hybrid car for its “performance”, the Prius c is surprisingly fast and can easily keep pace with most compact hatchbacks.
Flooring the throttle hard will see the electric motor and petrol engine unload their combined oomph, bringing the Prius c to the legal speed limit and beyond in a jiffy. Toyota says the Prius c makes the 0-100kph dash in 10.7 seconds.
Its electric power steering makes steering effortless but feels unnaturally light at low and parking speed. Thankfully, the steering feel gradually firms up a little once speed builds up.
The Prius c’s steering is quite accurate and the car handles very well for a compact model. The suspension set up is more on the comfort side but the car feels stable at fast cruising speeds.
At these speeds, the interior is quiet enough to hear the radio without the need to turn up the volume.
A regenerative braking system means that when you step on the brakes, the Prius c will convert the braking energy into electricity and store it in the hybrid battery until the power is needed later.
If you want to extract the maximum miles from your petrol, there is the ECO mode button which retards the Prius c’s throttle response and keeps the engine from revving high unnecessarily.
As long as there is enough charge in the hybrid battery and the Prius c is no faster than 45kph, you can run on full electric power for up to 2km by pushing the EV (electric vehicle) button.
In case you are wondering if the air conditioner of the Prius c will shut down together with the engine while at the traffic lights, the answer is no.
You will continue to enjoy refreshing cool air as the air conditioner compressor is an electric type that does not rely on engine power to operate.
All five occupants get three-point seat belts with the one for the rear centre passenger tucked away in a special holder at the ceiling liner when not in use.
Seats were comfortable and the near two hours’s drive from KL to Malacca doesn’t result in sore backs.
The trunk has 260 litres of space -about what most compact hatchbacks provide - and you can fold down the rears seats for more.
The level of safety kit is impressive for a sub RM100k car. There are seven airbags, anti-lock braking system, vehicle stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist.
Other touches are 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and go, and audio system with AUX/USB/iPod support.
But the Prius c’s forte is its ultra low fuel consumption which Toyota says is 3.9 litres of fuel per 100km.
I only managed to use up half of the fuel in the tank after doing some 400km which includes a mix of heavy footed runs and slow drives on expressways and trunk roads.
To put things into perspective, this half way mark of the Prius c is the point where the low fuel warning indicator of my missus’ three-year-old Myvi would start to flash.
And just before handing the Prius c back to UMW Toyota Motor, my last look at the tripmeter and fuel gauge showed that I had covered 580km - with the fuel tank still 30% full.
The interesting fact is that the fuel tank of the Prius c is 36 litres, much smaller than other hatchbacks of its class which are usually between 40 and 42 litres.
Offered with a three-year/100,000km warranty, available colours are Silver Metallic, Lime White Pearl, Black Mica, Citrus Orange Mica Metallic and Super Red V.
For RM97,000 on-the-road with insurance, the Prius c is an affordable entry into the Prius club whose privileges include fewer visits to the petrol stations.