The world’s No. 1 automaker pioneered mass-market hybrid vehicles with the debut of the Prius in 1997, and contends that the technology still has a long way to go.
It’s a bet on the longevity of the brand and technology at a time when Tesla and other upstarts have seized the narrative to say that the era of electric vehicles has already arrived, even though they still only make up about 6% of total global car sales.
“It’s a car to be driven by all people, not just the few,” Simon Humphries, Toyota’s senior general manager of design, said at the unveiling. “That’s its greatest strength and reason for its existence, and it’s the reason why the Prius brand should not be lost.”
The new Prius will have a 1.8-liter and 2.0-liter engine hybrid powertrain options, which combines a combustion engine, electric motor and battery to deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. There’s also a 2.0-liter plug-in hybrid system that boosts power and range.
A lower chassis, swept body and shark-like nose, in addition to black exterior accents and dark interior tones, are all aimed at giving the Prius an edgier look, a departure from the wedge-shaped and gray interiors seen in prior models.
Toyota mainly focused on two areas for the new Prius, according to Satoki Oya, a deputy chief engineer at Toyota who worked on the Prius. One is the design and the other is drivability, he said.
“This is meant to showcase Toyota’s most advanced technology,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Tatsuo Yoshida.
Toyota has sold 4.75 million Priuses to date, while Tesla only just passed the 3 million mark for cumulative production of all its vehicles. After peaking in 2010, when more than 500,000 units were sold worldwide, there’s been a gradual slide, with customers buying almost 86,000 Priuses last year.
Even though Prius sales have tapered off, hybrid technology is now spread across Toyota’s product line, including the Lexus brand. Other Toyota hybrids, such as the RAV4, do even more volume.
“The reason why Prius sales have declined isn’t because hybrids aren’t selling well,” Yoshida said. “It’s because there are other hybrid options, so it is no longer necessary to buy a Prius.”