By Brady Holt
For nearly two decades, the Toyota Prius has proven itself to be a fuel-efficient and relatively affordable way to minimize fuel usage.
This best-selling hybrid uses its gas engine in connection with an electric motor to reduce gasoline usage. But it’s a compact car that starts at $24,395. While the Prius’ driving dynamics have improved over the years, it’s still not a luxury car — despite the price.
Two recently-tested hatchbacks offer a more-affordable alternative to the Prius. One is another Toyota Prius, the other one is the subcompact Prius c model. It shares little in common visually or mechanically with the Prius, and it’s an older design. Power, fuel economy and interior space all lag behind. But it’s priced from a more-tempting $21,550, and it boasts the small-car advantages of super-easy maneuverability.
Another is the Prius’s closest competitor: the Hyundai Ioniq. It’s sized and priced closer to the Prius (starting at $23,085), while still delivering a price advantage, a quieter ride and a user-friendly driving experience with few hybrid-specific quirks.
The Ioniq is likely the better fit for most buyers than the tiny Prius c, for not much more money. The tested Blue trim is both the base model and the most fuel-efficient one, rated for a class-leading 57 miles per gallon in the city, 59 mpg on the highway and 58 mpg overall. Moreover, it averaged a whopping 64 mpg during a week of mixed driving.
Unlike the Prius and most other hybrids, the Ioniq Blue achieves better EPA ratings in highway driving than in the city. In low-speed stop-and-go conditions, it’s difficult to drive the car without the gasoline engine needing to turn on — the Prius is easier, and even has a selectable electric mode for below 25 mph. But the Ioniq remains efficient in all conditions, and widens its gap over the Prius on the highway.
Besides just the numbers, the Ioniq has a different feel from the Prius. Instead of futuristic and high-tech, the Hyundai feels like an everyday user-friendly economy car — comfortable, quiet and unassuming. Its hatchback body style adds utility, though the Prius has a better-shaped cargo hold and an airier-feeling interior.
While the Ioniq is happy on the highway, the subcompact Prius c loves lower speeds. That could be driving in the city itself or in slow-moving Beltway traffic in rush hour. It’s rated for 48 mpg in the city, 43 mpg on the highway and 46 mpg overall. The tested car averaged 50 mpg, struggling on the highway — its overworked little engine using more fuel than some non-hybrids — but topping 60 mpg in stop-and-go conditions.
As a subcompact car, the Prius c offers tight rear-seat space. And as a model that hasn’t changed much since 2013, it also looks a little dated inside. But it’s hard to find a cheaper new car that will sip gas during a grueling commute.
Downsides to both the Prius c and the Ioniq also highlight the lasting appeal of the standard Prius model. It’s highly efficient, and it comes standard with more-advanced safety features than the Ioniq. It’s spacious and drives better than ever. And it looks nothing like ordinary cars.
If you’re shopping for an affordable hybrid, the Prius and the Ioniq are well worth considering, and the Prius c is also worth a look if you’re interested in spending as little as possible or in getting a smaller, more-maneuverable car.
Another contender is also just now hitting the market: the 2019 Honda Insight, essentially a hybrid version of the Honda Civic sedan. It promises the refinement and subtlety of the Ioniq but with sportier handling, but it lacks the versatility of a hatchback.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-hybrids to see more photos of the tested 2018 Hyundai Ioniq, Toyota Prius c and Toyota Prius.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.