Double wishbone rear suspension and an all-new platform will make it so, Toyota says
One of the main complaints about the Toyota Prius from owners, car writers and the artist formerly known as Jeremy Clarkson is that the Prius was no fun behind the wheel. Well that’ll be fixed when the new car rolls into showrooms early next year on an all-new platform with a double-wishbone rear suspension and a sportier front strut setup (at least it looked like a front strut when we tried to crawl underneath the car). That and a handful of other as-yet-unnamed improvements will lift it from its mundane, efficiency-focused past and put it before the eyeballs of a wider audience of buyers.
“This will broaden-out the reasons to buy a Prius,” said Toyota division general manager Bill Fay at the car’s unveiling last night in Las Vegas. “It looks a lot better, it drives a lot better, it’s a much better car!”
That exclamation mark was our doing but it might as well have been Toyota’s. Granted, the handling bar for all previous Prii was pretty low, so you’d have to try really hard to make it a less-interesting driver. But improved handling was one of the constant themes touched on repeatedly by executives we spoke with in Las Vegas.
The next most common theme seemed to be an improved interior, with higher-quality materials throughout. We got to crawl inside a 2016 model and poke around. What we found was a lot of shiny piano-black and shiny piano-white surfaces, the kind that attract greasy fingerprints just like an iPhone 6 or an actual piano. The material reminded us of that found in the first-gen Chevy Volt, the latter with its white, 2001-A-Space-Odyssey space station finish on its console. Funny how the new Volt went away from that kind of interior finish and the new Prius is now going to embrace it. Toyota wouldn’t say whether the trim level we saw was representative of all 2016s, so maybe it was just the top-level model that will get it. We hope there’s a choice.
A third popular point execs hammered on was the new car’s size: longer, lower and wider with more interior room, specifically: 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider, and 0.8 inches lower than the current Prius. There was no figure given for the improved interior volume. We sat in the front and back seats and found that we fit comfortably in both locations. Our noggintop did touch the roof in back but our freakishly long torso might not be representative of Average Man 95. We think you might fit just fine.
There were no details on powertrains except to say that the new Prius could accept both hybrid and plug-in hybrid models.
“Smaller, lighter hybrid system components, higher-energy density in the batteries, and an internal combustion engine touting ground-breaking thermal efficiency (more than forty percent), contribute to a significant advancement in fuel economy,” Toyota said in a statement. “With an expected ten percent improvement in EPA estimated MPG on core models, Prius will offer best-in-class fuel economy among vehicles without a plug. A soon-to-be unveiled Eco model will achieve an even greater improvement, strengthening Toyota’s leadership in hybrid fuel efficiency.”
Part of that efficiency will come from a more aerodynamically efficient exterior. This one looked, at first, less like a Prius and more like a coupe, maybe a Honda Civic, which was the only car anyone mentioned when execs were asked to name cross-shopped vehicles. But the first time we saw it the 2016 Prius was hanging by four cables from a large steel superstructure on a hotel rooftop on The Strip. Still, that’s a nice first impression — the four-door coupe look that so many car designers are touting lately. We spoke to Prius chief designer Shunsaku Koduma, who politely replied that the car “wasn’t intended to look like a coupe.” But it did look nice to us under those bright lights in that big city.
“The goal was basically that we didn’t want any sacrifice when designing the car,” Koduma-san said. “Our focus was not only on fuel efficiency and environmental considerations but we also wanted to make sure that its design was a reason to buy this car. By using a new platform we were able to incorporate an emotional aspect to the Prius.”
Yes, it’s a new platform, and “all-new platform,” according to chief engineer Kouji Toyoshima. There’s nothing carryover from the previous Prius. It’s the first example of TNGA, or Toyota New Global Architecture, which will underpin a wide variety of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and internal combustion-engined cars and SUVs, including mega-sellers like Camry and Corolla.
More details will come out at the Tokyo motor show next month, but for now this sounds promising, certainly by Prius standards. As Toyota chief Bob Carter said, “When you drive it you’ll understand.” Plans call for a press drive by the end of November.