The Toyota Prius is the gold standard when it comes to fuel economy. The new Prius in Eco trim is capable of going up to 58 miles on a gallon of gas. That would have been unthinkable before Toyota married its hybrid technology to the internal combustion engine. The problem for Toyota is that it has painted itself into a corner. Improving on the Prius with its iconic Synergy Drive will be a tall order. It’s easy to make a Belchfire 5000 with a V-8 engine get 10% better gas mileage, but it’s a whole lot tougher to make a current generation Prius 10% more efficient. Nevertheless, people expect continuous improvements. What’s a poor car company to do?
According to Shoichi Kaneko, assistant chief engineer for the Prius Prime, creating the next generation Prius will be a difficult challenge. Because Toyota wants to lead the way in transitioning to a fossil fuel free transportation model, just making a better standard hybrid powertrain might not be enough. “Ultimately, PHEV may be the way to go,” Kaneko says.
Back in 2013, Toyota’s managing officer, Satoshi Ogiso, told the press, “To beat your own record becomes very difficult.” To get the current car to where it is today took a lot of small improvements. The engine is the most efficient production internal combustion engine ever built. Engineers took a little weight out here and massaged the sheet metal to get a tiny aerodynamic gain there. Now to get the next generation car up to 60 mpg or more will be incredibly difficult.
That’s why the company is thinking it may need to make plug-in hybrid technology the foundation of the 5th generation Prius when the time comes for it to debut. Making a plug-in hybrid powertrain standard equipment would allow Toyota to get to that next level. It would move the brand forward while keeping the Prius relevant.
The new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid is the proof of concept car for Toyota’s future plans. Kaneko says Toyota poured a lot of resources into making the Prime the best Prius possible. Part of that is the addition of a new double wishbone rear suspension to improve ride and handling over the old beam axle. If the Prius Prime struggles in the marketplace, that could force Toyota to reconsider its plug-in hybrid strategy.
That would be unfortunate. Purist bemoan plug-ins as a stop gap measure, but it seems clear they will be an important part of the electric car revolution, at least for the next decade or so. If the Prius Prime has a lackluster sales performance, it will probably have more to do with its polarizing styling than its plug-in hybrid powertrain. The new car, with its multitude of slashes and creases, and its ungainly front and rear treatments, is unlikely to make anyone’s Top 10 Car Designs list.