TOKYO -- When the next-generation Prius hybrid came up for final approval at a session of top brass, Toyota Motor Corp.'s global r&d boss delivered bad news to the car's chief engineer: The design doesn't cut it. Try again.
The fateful review, according to a source, happened last year, prompting a whirlwind of tweaks by Prius Chief Engineer Koji Toyoshima. Only when the restyled car resurfaced for a yay-or-nay at an April meeting did it finally get the green light.
Mitsuhisa Kato, the executive vice president who nixed the early design, said other issues played the pivotal role in a decision earlier this year to delay the launch of what is arguably Toyota's most iconic nameplate.
It's unclear what those issues were. But it's clear from conversations with Toyota executives that a less-than-great design was not going to be approved.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda has prioritized design like never before. And the founding family's scion has recruited like-minded executives to do likewise. So the order to overhaul a nearly finished fourth-generation Prius -- while still a rare rebuff -- highlighted the new mindset.
"The design redo was instructed by myself, and the president said the same thing," Kato told Automotive News. "We substantially refined the design, and we have finally reached a level where we can offer it next year."
As reported by Automotive News, Toyota decided to delay the start of production for the much-anticipated Prius to the end of 2015 from an initial target of next spring.
There are plenty of potential hang-ups. The upcoming Prius will be a critical test bed of complex new technologies, including the carmaker's modular vehicle architecture and next-generation hybrid system.
Getting the look right, executives hope, finally will free the Prius from its frumpy image. Toyota, which sold more than 1 million hybrids in 2013 for a second straight year, has more riding on the Prius' redesign than bragging rights. It also will show whether Toyota's new design strategy is on the right track.
Toyota is closely guarding styling details of the next Prius, code-named 690A, and its plug-in variant, code-named 680A.
But Toyota's design studio aims to inject emotion into a utilitarian hatchback that traditionally has tapped customers' environmentally conscious, rational side, said one engineer.
The last-minute course correction in styling apparently delivered big changes. "The exterior is clearly different," said a Toyota insider. "We want designs that feel like a fresh breeze and have impact."
Toyota also is expected to better differentiate the designs of the standard Prius and the Prius Plug-in this time. Currently, both vehicles share nearly identical bodywork.
Toyota aims to restyle the standard Prius with a sporty look targeting younger buyers and give the plug-in version a more staid look to appeal to a wider audience, according to a source at a company that supplies parts for the vehicles.
The concept car most closely previewing the next Prius is the C-HR Concept shown at this year's Paris auto show, said another source. While the concept is a compact crossover, its so-called diamond architecture features, such as the muscular wheel arches, aggressive grille and tapered glasshouse, are expected to influence the looks of the Prius hatchback.