Toyota Fashions a Bolder Image for the Practical Prius

DETROIT — The Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid did not need cutting-edge styling to become the best-selling alternative-fuel car in the world. If anything, its sensible design struck a chord with consumers more interested in fuel economy than fashion.

But with new electric cars from Tesla, BMW and others taking glamour to the market, the Prius is getting a makeover.

On Tuesday night, Toyota unveiled the next-generation Prius in spectacular fashion by hoisting a car high above a crowd outside a hotel in Las Vegas. The stunt called attention to what Toyota hopes is a bolder image for the vehicle, which has been losing sales because of declining gas prices and an onslaught of competitors.

The new Prius, which goes on sale next year, is longer and sleeker than the current egg-shaped model, and it comes with striking new headlamps and a prominent rear spoiler.

Toyota said the fuel economy of the new version would improve by at least 10 percent over the existing model, which gets 51 miles per gallon in city driving.

The car also has a revamped suspension to make it more agile, as well as a raft of safety features, including lane-departure alerts, steering assistance and automatic precollision braking.

But it is the new design that will most likely determine whether the Prius can recapture the iconic status it has enjoyed since it first went on sale in Japan in 1997.

“The Prius has enormous brand equity, but it needs to be more than just a high-mileage vehicle,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst with the auto research firm Kelley Blue Book.

With more than 3.5 million sold globally since its introduction, the Prius is by far the most popular hybrid vehicle in history. And Toyota has beefed up the brand in recent years by adding a variety of models in different sizes and prices.

But the hybrid market has not been growing at the rate of the overall industry in the United States. Moreover, the introduction of all-electric cars from Nissan, Tesla and other manufacturers has somewhat overshadowed hybrids, which are powered by both a battery and a gasoline engine.

Sales of the Prius lineup dropped by 17 percent, to 125,000 vehicles, during the first eight months of the year in the United States.

A top Toyota executive said on Tuesday that the Prius needed to be reinvented.

“What was once a rational purchase that for many customers focused on fuel economy is now so much more,” said Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota brand in the United States.

The new model is the first vehicle to use Toyota’s “new global architecture,” which allows components to be shared among a variety of vehicles. The system is expected to save development costs, which can instead be used on new technologies.

Analysts said the design changes on the Prius were overdue. “The Prius look is dated and a bit quirky,” Mr. Anand said.

Toyota did not announce prices for the next Prius models. The current base model costs about $25,000, but analysts do not expect the company to seek significant increases, mostly because of competition from small, gasoline-powered cars that can get up to 40 miles per gallon.

“Unless a consumer wants to show off an environmental image, they can opt for a nonhybrid instead of the Prius and get close to the same fuel economy,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for the research firm Auto Trader.

Mr. Fay said the exterior redesign of the vehicle would lure new customers to the hybrid category.

“Prius set the global benchmark for hybrids but now is breaking its own boundaries with a more engaging style,” he said.

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