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Is the Toyota Prius C Better Left in Japan?

While the Toyota Prius was an inarguable success on the North American market, its smaller sibling really only had a few good years before sales figures started trending in the wrong direction. The Prius C attempted to court urbanites (the C stands for city) by offering the same hybrid concept in a smaller package. Unfortunately, Toyota only managed to move around 13,000 between the United States and Canada in 2017 before its discontinuation the following year — leaving us with the standard Prius and the tongue-twisting Prius Prime Plug-in Hybrid.

But the C has since been revised in its native Japan, where it’s called the Aqua, resulting in a slightly roomier automobile with a new high-output bipolar nickel-hydrogen battery that’s supposed to deliver improved responsiveness and range. Considering the escalation of Western fuel prices, we’re wondering if it’s time for the Prius C to make a comeback in our neck of the woods or if it’s better left to cruise around the tight streets of Tokyo where its success is all but assured as the Aqua. 

Toyota is attempting to think long-term with this one and deliver a vehicle that can satisfy economically minded consumers for the next decade. That involved making the Aqua a 2.0-inch longer wheelbase (via the TNGA-B platform) that’s primary goal was creating more interior volume for rear passengers and cargo. Considering the old model couldn’t even store 20 cubic feet of junk without folding down the seats, nixing rear passengers to accommodate for 70 cubic feet, this is likely to be a major win for the model.

But the most important aspect has to be the powertrain and clearly where Toyota put most of its effort. The entire package has been shrunk down using “bipolar electrodes” that effectively allow the cells to be stacked like sardines. This results in a smaller, tightly packed battery that weighs less and can have a charged sent straight through the stack. It also means Toyota could cram in more cells overall.

The manufacturer says this has resulted in a vehicle with 1.5 times the power output of its predecessor, while the use of NiMH batteries allows for more predictable performance in colder climates. Toyota has been one of the few companies that have spoken about battery technologies in a manner I would consider serious, at least when pressed, and has prided itself on advancing hybrid technology since the beginning. Cold-weather performance has been something its engineers have been going on about for years.

While this is less important in a hybrid than an EV, it still makes a difference in overall performance. Toyota is promising the 1.5-liter “Dynamic Force Engine” and an optimized HEV system is capable of returning 35.8 km/L (which translates into an insane 84 mpg) on the more basic model. Though the figure is likely inflated a bit by the nature of Toyota using the WLTC test cycle. The United States’ EPA assessment would undoubtedly yield smaller numbers.

It’s still wildly impressive and shouldn’t come down by much on better equipped Aqua models, which have tried to add more comfort, quietness, and practicality. While packaging would be different for North America, Toyota is adding larger displays, improved interior storage solutions, and an “emergency power supply mode” that effectively turns the car into a generator for pretty much whatever customers need during a blackout or camping trip.

Toyota is also promising more power and smoother acceleration (figures TBA), with the ability to accommodate single-pedal driving. While this is a feature we’ve seen cropping up on EVs, your author has mixed feelings on its true utility. Upping the regenerative qualities of the car is nice and extends the overall range. But the single-pedal mode can also make the vehicle feel like a combustion car that’s stuck in low gear if it’s not done well.

Though that ultimately has no impact on my trying to decide if bringing back the Prius C is a move Toyota should be making. While we already have the Corolla Hybrid, it’s locked into a mid-tier trim and is only about a grand cheaper than the base $24,525 Prius. The Aqua is offering substantially better-claimed efficiencies in a smaller and likely cheaper package (it starts in Japan for under $18,000), making us wonder if it’s time for the Prius C to make a comeback as fuel prices climb and the American economy develops a thousand-yard stare.

[Images: Toyota]

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