For all the ink devoted to Tesla, it's the Toyota Prius that has reigned for two decades as the face and brand name of fuel-efficient transportation. It has also helped crystallize Toyota's image as a champion of the environment.
Now, as Toyota prepares to launch the fourth-generation U.S. model in an era of cheap oil and abundant hybrids, it's looking to the Prius to help round out that image.
Yes, it's still a gasoline-electric hybrid, and even more efficient and roomy than its predecessor, but the redesigned Prius unveiled last week on the glittering Las Vegas Strip also rides on Toyota's newest global car platform, which offers better handling, and features a more refined interior. It also pushes boundaries in styling, shifting from the simply odd profile of the older Priuses to an edgier look that -- for better or worse -- is bound to turn heads.
In short, the 2016 model, which goes on sale at the beginning of next year, is everything Toyota is now yearning to be known for.
"I think we've got the whole package now," Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota Division, said at the Las Vegas reveal. "We're just not going to appeal to one or two purchase considerations. I think we're really going to appeal to a much broader part of the market -- which I think will be important with fuel more affordable now."
Toyota took time to get the package right. It initially targeted a spring 2015 production launch, but pushed it off by about six months as engineers worked out kinks in the new vehicle architecture and its next-generation hybrid system. An underwhelming design also had to be tweaked in a late-stage review after Toyota's top r&d boss gave it the thumbs down.
The extra scrutiny underscores what the Prius has meant to Toyota and the industry. While it wasn't the first gasoline-electric hybrid in the U.S., it was the first to gain mainstream acceptance, and it helped prove that a market exists for practical alternative-powertrain vehicles.
Since the car was introduced in 1997 in Japan, more than 3.5 million have been sold globally, including more than a few to image-conscious Hollywood celebrities. (It was California's top-selling new car in 2012 and 2013.) It has some of the highest name recognition in the green-car world, and some of the most loyal buyers in the industry, according to Edmunds.com.
"Every Prius is a billboard for the Toyota brand," says Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific. "It gives people a much more favorable image of Toyota, while at the same time they're pumping out Sequoias and Tundras."