The new Toyota gas-electric Prius hybrid not only comes with more power, acceleration and driving range. It’s also more stylish, scrapping the rather stodgy angular body for a sleekly futuristic look.
Simon Humphries, senior general manager of Global Toyota design who unveiled the car in Tokyo on Wednesday, stressed that the company was still defying the skeptics who keep asking how much longer the Japanese automaker will stick with hybrids in a rapidly electrifying industry.
“Simply because the Prius is an eco-car within everyone’s reach. In order to achieve carbon neutrality, everyone in the world must participate. We need ecological solutions within reach of the many. And it needs to start today, not tomorrow,” he told reporters.
The fifth-generation Prius hybrid models will go on sale this winter first in Japan then the U.S. A plug-in version will hit the market next year, according to Toyota Motor Corp. Prices were not announced.
The automaker swapped an older nickel-metal-hydride battery for a smaller, lighter lithium-ion battery. The result will be almost double the horsepower, quicker acceleration and 50% longer range.
The Prius, which first went on sale in 1997, switches back and forth between a gasoline engine and electric motor to deliver a cleaner drive than the models with regular combustion engines.
Electric cars are zero-emissions but need recharging. Some consumers are worried about running out of juice on the roads. A hybrid always has the gas engine as backup.
Toyota has cumulatively sold more than 20.3 million hybrid vehicles, including Prius cars, around the world so far. The Prius, which means “pioneer” or “first” in Latin,has defined Toyota as a brand as much as its Lexus luxury models.
Still, Toyota has sometimes been criticized by environmentalists as dragging its feet on electrification, although some analysts say that’s a bit unfair given that other automakers also have few electric cars in its lineup, and many others have developed various hybrid models.
“The sale of more hybrid vehicles, including the Prius, drags us further into the climate crisis,” said Daniel Read of Greenpeace East Asia, based in Tokyo.
Read said electric vehicles and fuel-cell models were better solutions against climate change than hybrids.
Humphries said the new Prius was styled to be more stable, with a lower center of gravity, with bigger tires, curvaceous lines for its overall design and a fancy interior.
He said it was more an expression of love than a commodity. Making hybrid cabs or offering them to to other manufacturers could also be steps to spread the technology, he added, both of which Toyota decided against.
“We really believed the next step for Prius was to become a ‘car without compromises’ in order to increase its appeal to the customer,” said Humphries, standing before a screen splashed with the words: “We chose love.”
The Prius, with its revamped styling and efficiency, will compete better not only with other hybrid models but also with the available generation of fully electric vehicles, said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst for S&P Global Mobility.
The Prius models have always served as a kind of bridge to a time when there are more charging stations for EVs, said Brinley, who believes the new Prius stacks up better against hybrids and plug-ins from Hyundai, Kia, Ford and Jeep.
By adding 50% to the battery range, which translates to around 38 miles (61 kilometers), it can go far enough to cover the average U.S. driver’s commute and errands around town. The hybrid powertrain allows for road trips without worrying about a charging network that’s not yet complete, Brinley said.
“That really will make for more confident driving,” she said.