The Prius was once the top alternative-energy statement, and if Toyota has anything to say about it, despite declining sales last year for the car now late in its life cycle, the fourth-generation aims to rectify this state of affairs.
Not to exaggerate the downturn, although 2014 sales declined 11 percent in the U.S., the Liftback still managed to deliver 123,000 units counting consumer and fleet purchases.
But the car that once was the ride of choice to Hollywood galas has been declining for more than 12 months. Because it monthly outsells the next-nearest hybrid – usually another Toyota – by three-to-one, it hasn’t been pulling its weight as much, and the U.S. hybrid take rate has declined 1 percent since 2012 due also to inexpensive gasoline and improved conventional choices.
Alas. What’s a (not) poor automaker like Toyota to do?
Answer: Toyota is busy at work attempting to spiff up a new Liftback in the hopes of making this the most-special one yet – and never mind that it doesn’t plug in.
An improved plug-in version is expected to follow too, but it’s with the Liftback Toyota hopes to lead the charge in its determination to expand its Hybrid Synergy Drive’s market dominance – its hybrids presently own around 70 percent of the U.S. market.
Perhaps just as much a victim of its own success, upstarts now have Toyota working extra hard. For you, the potential buyer, that’s good though, right? Likely. Toyota has not actually shown any photos of the new Prius Liftback, playing its hand close to its chest. Posted are shots of the CH-R Concept which may lend design cues and signal a new direction where it’s no longer hip to be square, but trying to be hip, and pretty well only hip.
What we will ultimately get to see, possibly by this fall for the 2016 model year, will settle all speculation. Meanwhile, based on what Toyota has let slip so far, this is what we may see.
Two Battery Choices
Toyota is a conservative company. As far back as 2007 talk was of incorporating a lithium-ion battery instead of nickel-metal hydride, but the company went with proven and paid-for NiMh in the 2009 third-gen car and li-ion in the plug-in version revealed a couple years later that was based upon it.
Nearly as conservative even now, the company’s Koei Saga, senior managing officer in charge of powertrain last July was reported as saying a potential exists for a base level improved Prius and an up-line one with li-ion.
Would this mean two-different mpg ratings for Liftback variants? That was not said, but could be the case.
A ton of reports have gone out stating this is a near certainty, but Toyota has not explicitly promised the 10-percent increase over today’s 50 mpg. It has however said it was the goal.
When we attended its Hybrid World Tour in Michigan August 2013, Toyota Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso called 10 percent a “crazy number,” and said it would be harder than ever to hit this incremental gain as he had in a former role as head engineer for the Prius.
To say he hedged would be understatment but most came away feeling he’d said between the lines this they aim to do or bust, and that’s essentially correct. In fact, Toyota would certainly like to out-do itself.
To do so would proportionately increase the edge other encroaching models have offered – cars like the larger, faster Ford C-Max Hybrid which is far behind the Liftback’s sales, but is not a completely second-class offering.
A new hybrid system and Toyota’s most thermally efficient engine to date are part of the plan, Toyota said in 2013.
And, last year Toyota published news of a new diamond hard silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductor “it hopes will improve the fuel efficiency of its hybrids, such as the Prius, by as much at 10 percent.”
The big catch is whether the company will surprise us and bring the new semiconductor to market sooner than the 2020 it – conservatively – said last May in a press release.
Some industry watchers are guessing this could be the case, and this plus the all-new hybrid system could exceed the 55 mpg goal by a few mpg. Depending on what Toyota does it might be possible for it to hit 58 mpg and maybe even the big 6-0.
The new Prius may even get all-wheel drive as an option. It’s always been a front-wheel drive car, operating through a continuously variable transmission, but snow belt drivers have shown appreciation for the extra traction and Toyota’s Saga said they’re considering it.
“I think we will possibly do it,” said Saga of AWD.
Presently the Prius is only one car with different trim levels, but will the next one have not just battery choices but also AWD or FWD to choose from?
The sportier positioned show-car pictured has been said to offer clues of what they’re thinking of doing with the new mystery Prius.
The 2016 vehicle, Saga said, will ride on Toyota’s modular New Global Architecture and the company said also sportiness will be blended in to broaden appeal.
Whether the displacement of the gas engine remains the same 1.8-liters is not confirmed, but the most thermally efficient engine will let it expand its power with less waste, potentially. In any case, the drive experience is expected to combat the likes of the aforementioned C-Max which Ford has previously snubbed Toyota with in ads, suggesting the Prius by comparison is gelded.
This ought to mean styling, performance and handling would be sharpened – on top of greater economy potential under ordinary driving conditions for the best of all worlds.
The ‘Long’ Bridge Technology
The market is becoming more competitive. Subsidized plug-ins like the new 2016 Chevy Volt which promise to do the first 50 miles gas free with sporty style and road manners make a compelling case.
Toyota has seen Prius owners jump ship to the Volt even during the first generation. That car is expected to get 41 mpg, so a Prius that is sportier for 2016 and with mpg 14-19 mpg higher ought to help it – perhaps quite a bit against this, as well as Hyundai which says it’s developing a Prius competitor, and Ford and others.
Toyota launched the first Prius in Japan in 1997. It and Honda’s Insight opened up the U.S. electrified vehicle market in the 2000 model year, and Toyota is determined not to lose what it has gained.
The company has caught flak for speaking against battery electric cars and shifting toward hydrogen fuel cell tech as its preeminent alternative energy approach.
It has otherwise said if hybrids are a “bridge,” they are “a very long bridge” and could be with us for many more decades.
Whatever the long-term future holds, that the new Prius will be significantly improved is a more certain prediction.
Toyota has delayed its revelation by several months saying it wants to get things right. We may know in little more than half a year how well it was able to improve the world’s best-selling alternative-energy car.