AUSTIN, Tex. -- It appears to be an impromptu street chase of hybrid electric vehicles: A vintage Toyota Prius liftback with obvious fender dents sticks tight on our tail along Bee Caves Road in Austin as we twirl around the Texas capital in Toyota's new Prius c 5-door liftback, a downsized fourth model for the expanding Prius hybrid family.
Turn by turn, one stretch after another, a leap across one intersection, even a quick spurt for a mile-long romp on the 2222 freeway: No matter what maneuvers we make, the Prius chaser follows.
Finally, we whip into a parking lot and the tracking car pulls into an adjacent slot as the 20-something driver, hair trim in a burr cut, dances around our low-slung test car conformed as a curvaceous wedge set on wee wheels with a raked prow, lots of glass up front and the tail high for a hatchback rear door.
"Dude," he exclaims with unabashed excitement. "You've got the Baby Prius!"
And so we do.
Aimed at young shoppers seeking a fuel-thrifty small car packing high-tech hybrid hardware, the new subcompact-size Prius c employs Toyota's proven Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system and earns downright impressive fuel economy numbers of 53 mpg City/46 mpg Highway.
The itsy-bitsy economy car provides room for up to five riders on comfortable seats with a pair of buckets in front of a bench for three and room at the rear for cargo due to the hatchback roofline.
Name badge of this newest Prius acquires the alphabet letter "c" as an appendage -- Prius c -- with the "c" denoting "city" in this smaller and lighter version of Prius sized right for navigating city streets.
Then numerical figures follow on the nameplate to describe four trim grades: Prius c One, Prius c Two, Prius c Three and Prius c Four.
Toyota's MSRP chart for the 2012 Prius c begins at $18,950 for Prius c One. Prius c Two lists for $19,900, the Prius c Three tallies to $21,635, while top-tier Prius c Four caps the series at $23,230.
Body styling is aero-smooth with the hood and windshield tipped to a racked-back plane which resembles a rakish two-door GT coupe while flanks reveal the four-door configuration of a practical sedan. The design earns an aerodynamic rating of merely 0.28 cD (coefficient of Drag), which makes the Prius c one slick set of wheels.
Dimensions of the body are modest -- only 13 feet long and not quite 5 feet tall but 5.5 feet wide. Prius c has a wheelbase length of 100.4 inches, which is nearly 6 inches shorter than the midsize Prius liftback (106.3 inches) and 9 inches less than the Prius v hatch (109.4 inches).
The downsized dimensions of Prius c create a lighter-weight vehicle that tips the scales at only 2,500 pounds.
Prius c's hybrid HSD system teams a thrifty but conventional 1.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine that sips gasoline with a pair of electric motor/generators. The HSD system controls all energy produced by on-board gas/electric engines and applies it directly to the front wheels through the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT).
The four-cylinder gasoline-fired plant, with dual overhead cams and Toyota's smart variable valve-timing (VVT-i) system, musters 73 hp plus torque of 82 lb-ft. The permanent-magnet synchronous motor by itself can produce 60 hp (45 kW). Combined output for the HSD runs to 99 hp.
Supplying electrical juice to the HSD is a direct-current nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery tucked beneath the cabin's back seat.
Prius c in this new version can run on the gasoline engine or on the electric motor, or in a mode with both plants contributing power simultaneously.
Standard active safety features on all 2012 Toyota Prius c models include electric power steering (EPS), anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), vehicle stability control (VSC), active traction control (TRAC), hill start assist (HSA) and smart stop technology (SST).
Toyota maxes hardware for passive safety on the Prius c, with dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags plus curtain-style air bags in headliners above front and rear outboard seats, as well as a knee air bag to shield the driver, even front seat cushion air bags.
Standard content for a 2012 Prius c One consists of 15-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers and 175/65R15 tires, projector-beam halogen headlamps and LED taillamps, automatic climate controls, fabric-trimmed front seats with 4-way adjustable driver's seat, rear bench folding seatback, 3.5-inch color TFT multi-information display, digital instrumentation with speedometer/odometer, tilt-telescopic steering wheel with control tabs, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, remote keyless entry with illuminated entry, power controls for windows and door locks, and a 4-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA.
Prius c Two adds variable intermittent wipers, 60/40 split fold-down rear seatback, cruise control, a center console, cargo tonneau cover and 6-speaker audio system.
Prius c Three upgrades to a Display Audio system with navigation and a 6.1-inch touchscreen, HD Radio with iTunes Tagging, USB port with iPod connectivity, Smart Key with Push Button Start, and options for 15-inch alloy wheels and a power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade.
Prius c Four grade comes with 15-inch alloy wheels and integrated foglamps, Softex-trimmed heated front seats and heated power exterior mirrors with turn signal indicators. Optional gear includes 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/50R16 tires and a power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade.