After years of rumors about a family of Prius vehicles, Toyota announced it will unveil the Prius MPV at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show in January. Of all the directions that Toyota could have taken for its next Prius model, the company opted for more overall space, a higher roof, and a broader rear end with upright window—opening the possibility for third-row seats. Toyota described it in a Twitter feed as “more comfort, style and versatility.”
In other words, the second member of the Prius family will be a hybrid people-mover with dimensions similar to the Mazda5. There are very few vehicles somewhere in between a wagon, crossover and minivan—although you see quite a few of those vehicles in Europe and Asia. The Mazda5 appeals to urban dwellers that need the load space and families who want something smaller than the two-ton-plus behemoths offered by minivans. Choosing this format means the upsized Prius could help establish a segment reflecting the shift towards small innovative packaging with efficient alternative drivetrains. (The Prius MPV Hybrid could double the city mpg of the Mazda 5, rated at 22 miles to the gallon.)
Toyota has released few details, but the rumor mill has a 2.5-liter engine powering the Prius MPV—a bump up from 1.8 liters in the current Prius—to provide sufficient oomph for the larger size. In any respect, we wouldn’t expect the larger Prius to reach a combined mileage of 50 mpg—but if it hits the mid-40s in a platform that answers the same needs as a minivan, then it would truly be unique in the marketplace. Cost for the new model, which could go on sale as early as next year, remains to be seen.
Good Platform for Alternatives
The Prius MPV would not be the first time a wagon-like small-minivan format was used for an alternative energy vehicle. In fact, the Mazda5 was the platform for a plug-in hydrogen hybrid concept displayed last year. The Mazda Premacy combined a hydrogen rotary engine—not a fuel cell—to power an electric motor for 125 miles of range. The Premacy concept promised 0 – 60 performance in about 10 seconds, and a top speed of 100 mph. A small lithium-ion battery pack—with plug-in capability—is provided for a few miles of backup service. General Motors also used a similar size for the Chevy Volt MPV, a crossover version of the plug-in hybrid displayed earlier this year in Beijing.
Don’t expect anything nearly as futuristic with the Toyota Prius MPV, which will utilize Toyota’s classic powersplit gas-electric hybrid system. The point is not to attract the early-adopter crowd—but for Toyota is to push its hybrid technology further into the mainstream.
The Prius is no longer considered cutting edge. Instead, it’s a commonplace model that uses proven technology to achieve the highest level of fuel economy for a gas-powered vehicle. The Prius MPV will be Toyota’s first real test to see if car buyers will embrace the Prius badge on something other than a mid-size five-passenger hatchback.