There must be something about being the world’s most powerful automaker that makes you just, you know, wanna spread some branding around like your showroom is a big slice of bread and your best-loved nameplates are just sweet, sweet chrome jelly. How else can you explain Toyota’s attempt to expand the “Prius” into a three-car lineup, in the same way that General Motors gave us a veritable squadron of Cutlasses in the early ’80s?
The original Prius, now in its fourth and most bizarre-looking iteration yet, is an unmitigated triumph that probably has more millionaire owners than the Bentley Flying Spur, but at the same time is often the car of choice for cost-conscious Midwestern families. The Prius V, on the other hand … well, let’s just say that it isn’t flying off showroom floors. The Prius C has been just as unpopular with buyers while also managing to become the subject of several negative reviews, including a one-out-of-five-star recap from Car and Driver.
“This is the perfect car for the person who doesn’t care about what, exactly, he’s driving,” quoth AutoWeek, but over the past year The Littlest Prius has become quite popular with a section of the American driving population that really cares about what they drive — because it’s how they are making a living.
Unlike the “real” Prius, the Prius c isn’t a clean-sheet design. In fact, it’s just a reskin of the current Yaris with a low-power, 1.5-liter variant of the Toyota Synergy Drive powertrain. The overall vibe is less Toyota-of-the-future and more cheapest-car-they-had-in-stock.
Cheap is relative: the least expensive of the four Prius c trim levels starts at just under twenty grand. But when it comes to running costs, the littlest Prius puts up some stellar numbers. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, it’s the cheapest new car to own, period point blank. Some of that’s fuel economy, and some of it’s the relatively low cost of consumables like brake pads and tires, both of which are relatively small and cheap thanks to the little Toyota’s low weight.
The big part, however, is depreciation. CR’s “cheap sheet” is chock-full of Toyotas, because very few cars this side of a Ferrari 458 Speciale hold their value like the average Toyota does. It’s also generally true that Toyota buyers are not terribly odometer-conscious. T.C. Mits, LJK Setright’s favorite name for “the celebrated man in the street,” figures that American cars are more or less trashed at 75,000 miles but 100,000 on a Toyota is “just breaking in.” This is particularly true for the second-generation Prius, which seems to be perfectly cheerful running to the half-million-mile mark and beyond.
In fact, the way I do the math, the more miles you drive, the better the Prius c looks as an economic proposition, even when compared to other Toyotas and the Prius that doesn’t have any letters after the name. No wonder, then, that the much-maligned little Pri-Yar-us-is is finding a whole new fanbase: UberX drivers.
It was my experience with a Prius c-driving UberX serf that made me start thinking about whether or not the c was the best (meaning cheapest) possible choice for an Uber driver. But I’m not alone. The various forums for Uber and Lyft non-employees are chock-full of Prius c discussion. After all, these guys can do the math just as well as I can, and they have additional incentive to do so since their bottom line depends on it.
After reading hundreds of posts on dozens of forums, I’ve come to some conclusions. The first one is that, given a choice, almost all the Uber drivers who actually do the math and take their McContractJob seriously would choose the Prius c. This is particularly true in California, where traffic is always a factor and the ability of the Synergy Drive to sit idle in those situations means money in the bank. Some of the current Prius c drivers started out with a “regular” Prius but quickly realized that the real-world difference in fuel economy is greater than the EPA can detect in their testing.
The next conclusion? Uber won’t let you drive a Prius c in New York, where it’s specifically listed as Not Accepted. The Yaris, too, is on the banned list. (Odd detail: You’re allowed to drive a Jetta for UberX, and you’re allowed to have a Jetta GLI, but you’re not allowed to have a just-plain GLI, and you’re not allowed to have the Sportwagen.) On the West Coast, however, everything’s just hunky-dory.
Last conclusion? Even though many Uberistas are fairly itching to acquire a Prius c of their own, some of their compatriots have been “downrated” out of the business by passengers (“Pax,” in Uber slang) who despise its cramped rear quarters and mail-slot luggage space. It’s true that when I had the chance to try out the rear seat of the c for myself, I found it very difficult to fit both the aforementioned self and my trusty Waterfield bag behind the driver without introducing my knees to my teeth.
Speaking truthfully, after reading a bunch of posts by Uber drivers, I have to say that I’d rather return to my days as the midnight dishwasher at Iacono’s Pizza than rely on Uber for any sort of sustainable income. The numbers only truly work out if you’re extremely fortunate and you have some capital to invest, and even then you’re lucky to make eleven dollars an hour in the long run. You can be let go at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. Uber itself shares no responsibility with you — not for healthcare, not for insurance, not for exotic stuff like maternity leave or bereavement.
It’s the kind of gig where you invest twenty thousand dollars in a new Prius c with the understanding that you could be stuck with a very expensive car payment and no corresponding income if you get three fat-asses in a row as “pax” and they downvote you. If you use an old car, you get downvoted and kicked out of the system. If you use a new car, you’re always on the edge of your driver’s seat hoping you have enough fares to justify your purchase.
Oh yeah, there’s also the chance that you can be beaten violently then sued by your attacker. Don’t expect Uber to lift a finger to help you when that happens, either. It’s all too clear that the “disruptive” company sees its contractors as replaceable parts, basically autonomous vehicles driven by Mechanical Turks.
I’d like to believe that there’s an upside. That you could meet interesting people, spend your days outside in the California sun, and earn fast-food money without having to touch a mop. But what kind of a life is it when the most you can hope for is twenty-five grand a year and a Prius that isn’t even the good Prius?