For an economical way to drive around town, it’s pretty hard to beat a hybrid. Unlike gas-powered cars, most hybrids get better mileage in the city than on the highway. At low speeds, their small electric motors can help propel the car, sometimes without needing to use any gasoline. And unlike a purely electric car, you don’t need access to a charging station or power outlet to run it. The Toyota Prius has long been the country’s best-selling hybrid car, thanks to its combination of stellar fuel economy and a spacious interior.
But it can get a little pricey for a compact car, starting at $24,395 and easily passing $30,000. If you’re looking for a more affordable gas-electric alternative, a couple of recently tested hybrids could be the right fit. The 2018 Hyundai Ioniq goes head-to-head against the Prius, pitching the Korean brand’s famous value quotient against the Prius’ vaunted reputation. Meanwhile, the 2018 Toyota Prius c strives to be worthy of the Prius name in the smaller, more affordable subcompact class.
The Ioniq is a relatively new model, debuting as a 2017 model and receiving few changes for 2018. It’s now priced from $23,085. It doesn’t have the Prius’ thoroughly unique character, with more restrained styling than the extra-edgy Toyota. And its dashboard is more user-friendly and incorporates more advanced smartphone integration.
From behind the wheel, it would be easy to mistake the Ioniq for an everyday Hyundai Elantra — the brand’s pleasant, straightforward compact sedan. For some buyers, feeling ordinary defeats the purpose of a hybrid. For those who just want to save fuel, the Ioniq can serve as a painless transition.
Furthermore, the Ioniq’s quiet, solid-feeling ride and solidly constructed interior are other perks. It feels like a more expensive car than the Prius, even though it’s not. However, though the Hyundai is roomier than the Toyota on paper, the Prius feels airier and has a more usefully shaped cargo hold.
At the pump, the Ioniq wins the fuel-efficiency war in terms of EPA ratings. It’s rated at 58 mpg in mixed driving on the tested base-model Blue version, and 55 mpg on higher-trim models that sacrifice some fuel savings for additional creature comforts. The Prius’ EPA ratings range from 56 mpg on the Two Eco version to 52 mpg on all other models.
Notably, though, the Ioniq’s advantage is strongest on the highway. In city driving, the Prius narrows the gap or even retakes the lead, depending on the version. The Ioniq proved less willing than the Prius to stay in all-electric operation while puttering around town. The Prius, for example, can accelerate gently from a four-way stop without burning any gasoline and partially recharge its battery while coasting to the next stop sign a block away.
The Prius c adds further city-use cred: It’s one of the smallest cars you can buy, especially with five doors and five seating positions. At less than 160 inches long, it’s more than a foot shorter than either the Ioniq or the standard Prius. It also boasts an extra-tight turning radius of just 31.4 feet. And some recent styling updates that give it the vibe of a mini crossover help keep it from feeling too tiny.
Moreover, the Prius c retains much of the standard Prius’ advantage in city driving, letting you save the most fuel in the sort of low-speed driving where most cars perform the worst — and where even the Ioniq doesn’t quite excel.
This advantage is magnified in D.C. traffic even more than in EPA testing, where the Prius c manages a mediocre (for a hybrid) rating of 46 mpg in mixed driving. And with its base price of $21,550, it’s also the least expensive hybrid you can buy today.
However, the Prius c is decidedly a subcompact car. While there’s a there’s a rear seat with three seat belts, even two adults risk feeling cramped. And cargo space is limited.
It’s also one of the least powerful cars you can buy, with just 99 horsepower. It gets noisy and feels strained for anything but gentle acceleration, and even flooring the accelerator has a relatively limited effect. The Prius c’s short wheelbase also results in a bouncy, unsettled ride at high speeds.
Also, while the Prius c has received several updates over the years, its interior continues to look and feel like an old economy car — not one whose base price is well over $20,000.
For the right buyer, the Prius c is a highly maneuverable, highly economical, easy-to-park city car. But if hauling a family or driving on the highway are regular needs, there are better choices. And if you aren’t interested in driving carefully to maximize your fuel savings, you might also consider a roomier and far less expensive gas-only subcompact hatchback like the Honda Fit or Nissan Versa Note.
Lastly, even value seekers shouldn’t rule out the standard Prius model. While it’s pricier than the Ioniq or Prius c, its excellent real-world fuel economy — particularly in the city — and its usefully spacious interior help justify its higher price tag.