Toyota reboots next Prius plug-in hybrid to lift sales

Koji Toyoshima, chief engineer, expects North America to account for about half of the Prius Prime’s targeted 60,000 annual sales.

TOKYO — Conceding that the first Prius plug-in hybrid was “a failure,” a top Toyota Motor Corp. engineer expects sales of the next-generation Prius Prime to soar thanks to a host of engineering and styling tweaks.

Toyota is targeting 60,000 sales a year for the upcoming Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, nearly as many as the previous-generation Prius PHV sold cumulatively since its 2012 launch.

About half that volume will come from North America, while Japan chips in roughly the other half, the car’s chief engineer, Koji Toyoshima, said last week in an interview. The car will also go on sale in some European markets but is expected to generate only marginal sales there.

The outgoing Prius PHV, as the first-generation Prius plug-in hybrid is called, delivered global volume of 75,000 since its introduction. Through May this year, U.S. dealers sold just 31 of the cars, a 99 percent plunge as Toyota cleared inventory to make way for its replacement this fall.

By contrast, Toyota has sold some 3.7 million standard Prius hybrids.

Toyoshima led development of the next-generation Prius plug-in hybrid, rechristened the Prius Prime for the U.S., as well as the redesigned standard Prius hybrid upon which it is based.

The standard hybrid version went on sale in Japan in December and in the U.S. in January. The plug-in hybrid variant, still called the Prius PHV in Japan, arrives worldwide this fall.

A top priority was engineering a plug-in hybrid that could compete in a segment increasingly crowded with competitors. In the coming years, Honda will enter the fray with its Clarity and Hyundai will add its Ioniq. Those come on top of a host of offerings from American and German rivals that jumped on the technology earlier.

“We cannot say that the last generation, in terms of sales, was a success. I would have to say it was a failure,” Toyoshima said of the outgoing Prius plug-in hybrid.

Getting to 60,000 sales annually is a must for the upcoming Prime, and part of Toyota’s plan to “hop, skip and jump” to larger plug-in hybrid volumes, he added.

“Going forward, there will be much broader competition in plug-in hybrids,” Toyoshima said. “We have to sell this much. Otherwise, we will not be able to win in the next round.”

Toyota targeted three areas of improvement:

1. Longer electric-only cruising range.

2. Clearer differentiation from the standard Prius.

3. Easier battery recharging.

In range, Toyoshima and his team doubled the EV-only driving distance to 22 miles. They also raised the speed at which the gasoline engine kicks in, allowing drivers to remain in electric-only mode longer. That happens now at about 84 mph, instead of 62 mph on the previous model.

The electric-only range is less than on such competitors as the Chevrolet Volt and the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid. But Toyoshima says Toyota carefully weighed the balance between EV range and overall fuel economy. Adding batteries would boost range but also weight, thereby hurting fuel economy when the engine is helping power the car.

More batteries would also sacrifice cabin and cargo space, he added.

Toyota also wants more distance between the plug-in hybrid and its standard hybrid cousin.

Differentiated headlights and taillights now set it apart, as does an optional tablet-sized touch screen inside. Toyota will make a marketing push to point out the differences, Toyoshima said.

The new name is part of that effort.

Another big difference: rooftop solar panels to recharge the battery.

Solar charging will be available only in Japan at first, but Toyoshima says Toyota plans to bring it to the U.S. during the life of the model.

The solar panels can recharge the battery even while the car is parked, and they boost overall fuel economy by 10 percent, compared with a car without them, Toyoshima said.

The U.S. will have to wait for the technology because the panels are laid on reinforced glass panels that don’t pass America’s more stringent rollover crash tests.

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