Business / Corporate

Toyota unveils Prius hybrid with 10% greater fuel efficiency

by Keiichiro Otsuka

Kyodo

Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled the new Prius, its leading hybrid car, in Las Vegas on Tuesday, saying it will be 10 percent more fuel-efficient than existing comparable vehicles.

The fourth-generation Prius comes at a time when driver interest in the United States is shifting toward larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles due largely to low gasoline prices. The redesigned Prius will also likely be challenged by increasing competition from makers of electric vehicles such as Tesla Motors Inc.

The new Prius, with its first restyling since 2009, will be marketed in Japan toward the end of this year, Toyota said, and in the United States from early next year.

Since debuting in 1997 as the world’s first mass-produced hybrid passenger car, the Prius has been a leader in the category of cars powered by a gasoline engine and an electric motor.

Its global sales reached 3,527,100 as of the end of July, forming more than 40 percent of Toyota’s global hybrid sales of 8,048,400. Its two key markets are North America, where dealers have sold 1,595,700 units, and Japan, where 1,553,400 units have been sold.

Carmakers, however, have recently run into an uphill struggle in pushing hybrid sales in the United States, where consumer preferences are trending toward less fuel-efficient vehicles.

Toyota is nonetheless raising its stake on fuel economy against the backdrop of increasingly stringent environmental regulations around the world.

The unpacked Prius, a five-door hatchback, features a smart body design with pointed head lamps. Toyota says the new version has stretched the body by 6.1 centimeters (2.4 inches) in length and 1.5 cm in width to achieve added interior comfort.

Its greater fuel efficiency has been achieved by making the hybrid system smaller and lighter, which helped Toyota to build a more dynamic engine and battery.

Toyota has not disclosed the detailed specifications of the engine or the price range of the new lineup, which is the first global vehicle built under the company’s new strategy of sharing components across models, called the Toyota New Global Architecture, for increased manufacturing efficiency.

The Prius’ fuel economy has been boosted by around 10 percent every time it undergoes a full remodeling. The new model is expected to be an improvement on the current car, which gets 50 miles per gallon (21 km per liter).

In the United States, California is a principal market for the Prius, where demand is strong for environmentally friendly cars. However, consumers in the state are also increasingly embracing electric vehicles.

An executive at a California car dealership said that wealthier people who are environmentally conscious are buying premium electric cars built by Tesla. The Prius no longer enjoys the status of a uniquely eco-friendly car that can draw the attention of Hollywood celebrities, the executive said.

Electric vehicles had been shunned because of the limited distance they can travel on a recharge. But their no-emission feature is valued highly by a growing number of consumers, a trend leading to the establishment of more recharge stations in California and other regions.

In 2014, U.S. sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, which can be charged at home, came to 118,773 units, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry body. While this fell far short of the 451,702 hybrid vehicles sold, it represented a 22.8 percent increase from a year earlier, compared with an 8.8 percent drop for hybrids.

Makers of electric vehicles are stepping up competition by offering increased features and more value for prices.

Nissan Motor Co. is aiming to sharply increase the fuel economy of its Leaf electric vehicle when it undergoes a face-lift. It can currently run 228 km (142 miles) on one recharge. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said he is confident that its electric vehicle will eventually be able to deliver a trip distance similar to a gas-powered cars in the near future.

On Sept. 2, Tesla said it plans to start the production of Model 3, a lower-cost vehicle priced at $35,000, in around two years, in an attempt to reach a greater range of clients than its current luxury models.