Toyota unveiled the fourth generation of its Prius hybrid gas-electric car here Tuesday night, with a crowd of 300 media representatives and an Australian rock band on hand to commemorate its arrival. The car was hoisted a 100 feet or so in the air, and then lowered onto a stage.
What did it all mean?
Hard to tell.
Toyota only showed off the car. Not much was revealed in the way of technical specifications. That seemed a bit odd, since nobody (okay, let’s say almost nobody) ever bought a Prius for its looks. The charisma-challenged Prius is, and always has been, about fuel mileage. And bravo for that. Kudos well earned, for a fuel economy pioneer.But will that always be the case?
The new Prius is supposed to get about 10 percent better mileage than the outgoing model, which was rated right around 50 miles per gallon (city and highway). If that means the new model (designated a 2016) is rated at 55 m.p.g. when it arrives in dealer showrooms in early 2016, that will be a welcome improvement.
But it is not a dazzling improvement. And frankly, 17 years after the original Prius appeared in America, 55 m.p.g. is far short of where I thought the 2016 model would be. But I hasten to add that I do not consider the Prius a failure. My daughter, who owns and adores a Prius 3.0 with bullet-proof reliability to go along with budget-friendly fuel economy, would probably object violently (as only she can) to any such characterization!
But the fact is, version 4.0 hits the market as Prius’ lead is dwindling in the national m.p.g. sweepstakes for hybrids. The competition is snapping at its heels (or, rather, its steeply angled flanks, more aptly). By the time Prius 4.0 is re-designed again and becomes Prius 5.0, in six to seven years, unless mid-cycle changes surprise us, whatever edge Prius 4.0 might start with could be long gone.
The original Prius, a 2001 model that actually arrived in 1999, was over-rated at 52 m.p.g. city and 45 highway under the Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy formula in effect at the time; under a new test, the mileage figure was adjusted significantly downward to 42/41.
In an interview with a high-ranking Toyota executive at the time, I was told the company’s internal goal, with each successive generation of the car, would be a 50 percent reduction in the footprint of the battery pack, and a double-digit improvement (was I told 25 percent? I can’t recall precisely) in fuel economy. But, of course, such percentage-based targets tend to become ever harder to attain as each incremental improvement is made.
By that initial reckoning, I had expected Prius 3.0 would have seen mid-60s fuel economy (after all, the original 2000 Honda Insight could hit that number), and so, the 4.0 would have been well into the 70s. The reality, however, was that those original goals were too lofty, and the process of finding fuel economy gains proved has much more difficult than Toyota’s top brass had initially hoped. And today, the race for fuel economy gains seems to be hitting the proverbial wall.
The reality: The second generation Prius, which made its debut as a 2004 model, improved to 48/45, 46 combined. It wasn’t until the third generation model appeared as a 2010 model that Prius managed to break the magic 50 m.p.g. barrier, with a 51/48 EPA rating.
So, in reviewing the combined m.p.g. ratings, and assigning a percentage to each generation’s incremental fuel mileage gain, here are the hard numbers:
Prius 1.0 to Prius 2.0: 12.2 percent (41 m.p.g. combined to 46 m.p.g. combined)
Prius 2.0 to 3.0: 8.7 percent (46 m.p.g. to 50 combined)
Prius 3.0 to 4.0: 10 percent (50 m.p.g. to 55 estimated)
Where will the auto industry be, in terms of fuel economy, by 2022 or so when Prius 4.0 might be replaced? By then, will 4.0’s m.p.g. rating of 55 be considered passe?
It is something to ponder. Maybe that’s what version 4.0’s splashy Vegas coming-out party was meant to convey. Maybe engineers have worked extra hard on the fourth-generation model to improve its looks – angles, corners, and origami-inspired shapes have been thrown at it like confetti. Maybe looks will prove to be more of a purchase consideration than they were for the three previous generations.
Or will time reveal to us that Prius is really only about the numbers?
September 9, 2015