Toyota’s unveiled the latest Prius, and boy is it weird.
The fourth generation of Toyota’s iconic hybrid has sharp angles everywhere, and lights apparently thrown on like ninja stars. It’s funky for sure, but it has to be, because hybrids have gone mainstream. They’re no longer radical, or even all that different.
This is the natural order of things; as revolutionary cars mature, they tend to become more conventional in appearance to attract new buyers. That’s what the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt and electric Nissan Leaf are doing.
Toyota is going the other way. The edgy (and, really, this car is nothing but edges) new look is an effort to stand out again, to reinvigorate sales of a model that has seen its popularity slip in a market that doesn’t place as great a premium on fuel economy. And the Prius always has been, first and foremost, about miles per gallon. It was born of a mandate by the brass to develop a car at least 50 percent more efficient that the fuel-sipping Corolla.
Although Honda was the first to offer a hybrid in the US, Toyota became synonymous with the technology.
The first generation, a small, almost pedestrian looking sedan, was introduced in 1997. It arrived in the US in 1999, seven months after the first-gen Honda Insight. It garnered some attention from hardcore eco-types, but sales didn’t take off until the second-gen Prius arrived here in 2004. That was the first model to look like the Prius people love (or hate) today. Its 50 mpg stomped the competition, and the car—which earned Toyota a reputation for technological innovation—helped propel the automaker past General Motors to become the world’s largest automaker in 2007. In the past decade, Toyota’s sold 3.9 million Priuses, nearly half of them in the US.
The key appeal of the Prius is that it offers killer gas mileage and practicality for under $30,000. It’s the car you see everywhere (especially on the coasts), the model that launched a thousand Uber drivers’ careers.
The new car offers incremental improvements. There’s more seating and cargo room. The suspension is more responsive and the body more rigid, to improve maneuverability. Toyota added a pile of advanced safety features, so the car’s ready to spot unexpected pedestrians and tweak your steering if you drift out of your lane.
Fuel economy’s up 10 percent to about 55 mpg. Impressive, but not much of a buffer against the hybrids and conventional cars on its bumper. The car’s greatest selling point is no longer quite so remarkable at a time when automakers are using things like turbochargers, direct injection, and continuously variable transmissions to boost the fuel efficiency of their entire fleets.
“Now we’ve got multiple economy cars approaching 50 mpg and a range of midsize and compact SUV’s achieving 30-plus mpg,” says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “All of these factors have diminished the Prius’ appeal.”
That means Toyota’s got to offer more than a low gas bill and reasonable price (expected to be in the 20s) if it wants to continue attracting buyers.
Enter the stylists.
What’s most different, or at least most striking, about the fourth-gen Prius is the exterior design. The car is lower, longer, and wider than before. The roof is flatter, and its peak has moved forward seven inches, placing it between the front and rear seats. The back is higher and more prominent. It seems like Toyota’s designers started throwing machetes at a clay model, and this is the result.
We wanted to entice customers to see that the car is really good looking, that it strikes their eye. Shunsaku Kodama, Prius chief designer
It’s refreshing. Chevrolet went in the opposite direction with the second-generation Volt, which has a less ostentatious design than its predecessor (which, in turn, was far more pedestrian than the wild concept GM unveiled in 2007). Customers “don’t want something that screams ‘I’m different, I’m electric,’” say Pam Fletcher, GM’s chief engineer for EVs.
Nissan’s planning a similar shift with the 2017 Leaf, which remains under wraps. “Now we are aiming for a bigger number of customers, and they are not looking for as much ‘EVness,’” design chief Shiro Nakamura told Green Car Reports.
Toyota seems to believe upping the funky factor will bring in customers not yet won over by the car. “We wanted to entice customers,” says Shunsaku Kodama, the car’s chief designer, to “see that the car is really good looking, that it strikes their eye.”
A key part of the early Prius’ terrific fuel economy was how it slipped through the air, minimizing the energy wasted fighting wind resistance. The current car’s 0.25 coefficient of drag is among the lowest out there. That number is so good, it’s hard to improve on without sacrificing important features like adequate leg and headroom.
“0.25 is already about as low as you can go without putting fairings on the wheels, reducing the size of the mirrors, making door handles flush, eliminating gaps in the body,” and so on, says Dr. Graham Candler, a professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics at the University of Minnesota.
To get much sleeker than the Prius, you have to make something truly radical like GM EV1, or the 261-mpg VW XL1.
Toyota’s not going there, at least not yet. It hasn’t announced the coefficient of drag for the new car, and while Kodama says the team’s always working to improve it, don’t expect a significant change.
So for now, the Prius may have to settle for being a little bit better and a whole lot different.