Whatever happened to the Toyota Prius?

Eighteen years ago it was stylish beyond belief, the car that was going to lead us out of the Age of the Internal Combustion Engine and into a green future.

Today the Prius has become somewhat dowdy, a tree-huggers’ car that’s trying to boast great gas mileage at a time when gasoline is about $2.30 a gallon.

“The Prius look is dated and a bit quirky,” Akshay Anand, an analyst Kelley Blue Book, told The New York Times. “The Prius has enormous brand equity, but it needs to be more than just a high-mileage vehicle.”

The collapse of oil prices has not been kind to gas-electric hybrids. Their 50-miles-per-gallon performance, which once doubled that of most models, is now being challenged by standard cars that get 40 mpg without electricity. Hybrids “have gone mainstream,” writes Alex Davies of Wired. “They’re no longer radical, or even all that different.”

As a result, Prius sales have suffered. In 2006 Toyota sold 150,000 of them, and the company overtook General Motors as the largest auto maker in the world. Now that honor goes to Volkswagen, which has a wider variety of hybrids and other fuel-sipping models. Sales of the Prius were down 16.8 percent during the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Although brand loyalty is still significant, there doesn’t seem to be much headroom for future improvement.

But that may be about to change. Last week on the roof of the Linq Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Toyota roustabouts hoisted a 2016 model 60 feet in the air in front of a crowd of journalists and auto analysts in order to launch a sexy new version of the Prius designed to attract a new generation of followers.

The four-door sedan has a stylish look that has no hint of fuel economy about it. Davies wrote in Wired: “The edgy (and, really, this car is nothing but edges) new look is an effort to stand out again, to reinvigorate sales of a model that has seen its popularity slip in a market that doesn’t place as great a premium on fuel economy.”

Toyota officials believe they have turned a corner. “Now we have a car that’s not just for mom and dad, tree-huggers and people on a budget,” said David Rodgers, vice president of two Toyota dealerships in Northern California. “This is what America’s been waiting for – a hybrid car with edge. It’s something the kids will want to drive.”

The fuel efficiency is still there. Toyota says the model will get 55 miles per gallon, and it still has the best co-efficient of drag in the industry. But with so much competition from similar brands, the company is going to have to rely on other factors as well.

If the early returns from journalists are any indication, Toyota may succeed. “Though we haven’t yet seen a reasonably priced alternative to the Prius, there’s usually not a lot of crossover between hybrid people and electric vehicle people,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The Model 3 and the new Chevrolet Volt will be increased competition, but there are still Prius loyalists.”

The coming release of the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 and the rejuvenated Chevy Volt should give Toyota plenty of concern. A decade ago the Prius represented 52.4 percent of the alternative-vehicle market. Last year the figure had fallen to 33.5 percent.

Prius-tail2One of the biggest things working against the Prius had been, as one observer put it, “it is no fun behind the wheel.” Stylishness was deliberately prosaic because ownership was a statement of frugality. Now all this has changed. When the Prius arrives in showrooms early next year, the improvements built into the car will “lift it from its mundane, efficiency-focused past and put it before the eyeballs of a wider audience of buyers,” wrote Mark Vaughn of Autoweek.

“Our biggest complaint about the previous Toyota Prius has been the driving experience, which is only slightly less exciting than reading a dictionary,” writes Aaron Gold in Consumer Reports. “We’re pleased to see the styling of the 2016 Toyota Prius has taken on more personality, and we like the idea of better fuel economy. The promise of more driver involvement is intriguing, but then again, Toyota’s definition of fun-to-drive doesn’t necessarily match ours. We’re optimistic, but to find out whether the new Prius will address our most serious complaints—too much noise and not enough fun—we’ll have to wait until we buy one for a full road test.”

Finally, Steve Siler of Car and Driver says: “… the styling evokes the futuristic hot mess that is the hydrogen-powered Mirai, although it’s not nearly as hideous. Say what you will about the overall design, but those taillights are pretty amazing. Welcome back, tailfins!”

Most important, the Prius revival may extend well beyond Toyota’s fortunes. As Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo put it: “With the aged outgoing model and low gas prices dragging down sales, the 2016 Prius will be a much-needed shot in the arm for not only Toyota, but the entire green car segment.”

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