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Amidst the glitter and glow of the neon-lit Las Vegas Strip, Toyota put the emphasis on energy efficiency as it unveiled the eagerly anticipated, fourth-generation Prius hybrid Tuesday night.
The world’s first battery-electric vehicle, the Toyota Prius has helped usher in a new era of advanced powertrain technology, but the compact model has been losing momentum at a time when cheap gas has many buyers migrating back to SUVs, pickups and muscle cars.
Toyota is again boosting the fuel economy of the Prius, but the 2016 hybrid also is longer, lower, wider and a little more mainstream in appearance.
“It’s going to expand our appeal,” said Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota brand in the U.S.
Where the original model largely targeted a “practical buyer concerned about fuel economy,” the 2016 Prius “that will appeal to a broader range of buyers.”
The completely redesigned Toyota Prius is set to reach showrooms early next year, a bit later than originally expected, according to various industry analysts.
The automaker held back a number of details about the new model, such as the changes it has made to the Toyota Synergy Drive system. It is believed to have use a new, slightly larger 1.8-liter gasoline engine paired with twin electric motors and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
While Fay would not confirm whether the new Prius will deliver better performance or get more range in battery mode than the current model — at barely 1 mile — he did confirm that Toyota expects to see a 10% bump in fuel economy.
If that is backed up in testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that would bring it to 55 mpg in the Combined cycle, easily positioning it as the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market, except for some even more advanced plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles.
Fay noted that Toyota also expects the new 2016 Toyota Prius to deliver better handling. Several factors would come into play. For one thing, the hybrid is now based on the Japanese maker’s new Toyota New Global Architecture, a platform that will be shared with a wide variety of vehicles in the Toyota line-up.
It is not only 2.4 inches longer but 0.6 inches wider. And it sits nearly an inch lower, improving its center of gravity.
The new Prius also adopts a more sporty double-wishbone rear suspension.
Improved handling, acknowledged brand boss Fay “was one of the things that came up” in research involving past and present Prius owners. They also asked for a more stylish exterior and a more well-appointed interior.
“It’s a much better car,” insisted Fay, adding “that will serve us” when low fuel prices cut into demand for high-mileage vehicles, such as hybrids and battery-electric vehicles.
Sales of such cars has been in a double-digit slump so far this year, even while the overall U.S. market has been approaching levels not seen in a decade.
Read The Detroit Bureau's full list of the hottest 2016 models
Along with the improvements in ride, handling and fuel economy, the new 2016 Prius is expected to get a suite of new infotainment and safety technologies. The latter will include a package of features designed to prevent collisions, including one system that can detect a pedestrian and apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough.
Pricing for the new Prius won’t be released until closer to launch. The current 2015 Toyota Prius starts at $24,200. A smaller hybrid, the Prius C, begins at $19,540.
Toyota isn’t saying if or when that model and a larger Prius V will be redesigned. Fay did confirm a lower-priced, higher-mileage version of the new 2016 Prius, dubbed the “Eco” edition, will follow next year. A new plug-in hybrid version is also under development.
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