Toyota wants you to be shallow and like the 2016 Toyota Prius for its looks and handling. Sure, you can respect its fuel economy, but the fourth-generation Prius is going to be marketed toward people who are not focused solely on its environment-friendly fuel economy and practicality.
That’s the message straight from Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager, Toyota Division. He brought hundreds of automotive journalists to the Las Vegas strip to emphasize how much fun the Prius is going to be. It’s going to be the best way to sell the hybrid with some analysts predicting gasoline prices could drop below $2 a gallon.
Toyota is stuck with this marketing challenge because of the development time for new cars. The new Prius made a lot of sense a year ago when the average price of fuel was $3.33. It was a no-brainer back in 2012 when regular gasoline was hitting $3.93 a gallon and the new Prius was in the early stages of development.
Even if Toyota wants you to, you just can’t ignore the fuel economy. This is going to be the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the road that you don’t plug in. Early estimates from Toyota are that the Prius will be capable of a combined 55 mpg. A planned Eco model should get even better fuel economy.
At this point, Toyota is not willing to say how this is going to be accomplished because the manufacturer is being mum on details about the powertrain. All it was willing to reveal is that the 2016 Prius will have “smaller, lighter hybrid system components, higher-energy density in the batteries, and an internal combustion engine touting ground-breaking thermal efficiency,” according to the official announcement. Those factors contribute to the increased fuel economy.
Karl Brauer, a Forbes columnist, said research shows consumers aren’t going to want to pay extra for fuel economy. “Gas is cheaper than ever. SUVs are more popular,” he said after the introduction, adding there is a significant supply of vehicles that get 30-40 mpg. They’re not quite at the new Prius level, but lower fuel prices make it less of a financial sacrifice to drive the other vehicles.
“Hybrids and alternative vehicles are shrinking in a growing market,” Brauer said. The Prius redesign was a necessary step to keep interest in the car but it may not reverse the hybrid’s sales position in the near term.
Brauer cited Kelley Blue Book research showing 26 percent of consumers would never consider paying a 10 percent premium for a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle. Another 24 percent might pay an additional cost, but only if fuel economy was 25 percent better than a comparable vehicle. What that means is almost one-quarter of potential buyers may never consider the Prius, especially if it is more expensive than a comparable midsize car like the Hyundai Sonata or Ford Fusion — both of which also offer hybrid models.
The MSRP for the Prius might be kept down because it is being developed with Toyota’s new global architecture. Toyota said its aim is to improve vehicle performance and increase product appeal. That’s being done through an integrated development program for the powertrain and vehicle platforms. The Japanese automaker is also simultaneously developing new vehicles to keep component costs down. It says achieving those cost savings will allow it to put more money into research and development to make future products more appealing.
The Prius is also going to be marketed for its safety features, which a Swapalease.com survey indicates as a strong selling point for new car buyers. One in five say it’s an important consideration (with 31 percent ranking performance as the most important reason). That same survey found blind spot monitoring to be the most desired feature on a new car. The new Prius will have that as part of the available Toyota Safety Sense package, which also includes automated pre-collision braking, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high beams.
This new Prius is also going to be roomier. The previous generation may have been a smidge tight in the rear seat but that seems to improve with this fourth-generation model. It is 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower. In addition to more passenger space, it also ups the available cargo space. After all, this is still a hatchback. Rear seat headroom appears not to be compromised by the lower roofline.
The new interior is fairly Spartan in its design, which seems to suggest an emphasis on the use of smartphones for things like music and navigation. It is full of soft-touch surfaces that make it feel like a more premium interior. The premium grade has a white center console that provides a dramatic contrast to the piano black interior. One is left to wonder how it will age and if buyers make find it too stark a contrast.