Toyota gives makeover to Prius 25 years after hybrid’s debut

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toyota Motor Corp.’s Senior General Manager of Design Simon Humphries makes a presentation during the unveiling of the redesigned Prius in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 16.

Toyota Motor Corp. earlier this month unveiled a redesigned Prius on the occasion of the hybrid’s 25th anniversary.

The world’s first mass-produced hybrid car, the Prius has been a leading vehicle in the eco-car market. With electric vehicles and other potential technologies in the spotlight, however, Toyota is trying to change the model’s image from not only being fuel-efficient, but also refined in design and driving performance.

The Prius debuted in 1997, with its name chosen from the Latin word meaning “to go before.” As a hybrid car driven by its gas-powered engine or electric motor, the first-generation Prius boasted overwhelmingly good fuel efficiency, with a mileage per liter of gasoline about twice that of conventional cars. The tagline back then was “Just in time for the 21st century.”

The hybrid market launched by the Prius has expanded, thanks also to the global trend toward decarbonization. Since the launch of the Prius, Toyota says it has sold 20.3 million hybrids globally, reducing CO2 emissions by 162 million tons.

“The Prius’ greatest achievement lies not only in those numbers,” said Toyota’s Senior General Manager of Design Simon Humphries during his presentation on Nov. 16 in Tokyo to unveil the redesigned Prius. “Rather, it opened up a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel.”

As the value of hybrids came to be widely known, Toyota’s made hybrid versions of mainstay models such as the Corolla and Yaris. In 2021, Toyota sold 2.48 million hybrids, making up a quarter of its overall sales.

Debating the future

Toyota plans to develop vehicles “omnidirectionally,” including electric vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles that use hydrogen as fuel. President Akio Toyoda has insisted that the Prius is “a car that we must preserve by all means.”

With electric vehicles attracting global attention, how can the Prius be transformed? A heated debate followed within the company.

“How about having the Prius be used exclusively as a taxicab?” Toyoda suggested to the development team.

Generally speaking, taxicabs travel more mileage than private cars. The idea was that if the Prius, which has in some cases been used as taxicabs around the world, were to be used more widely in an exclusive role, it would contribute more to the reduction of CO2 emissions globally.

Another discussion item was to make the Prius for other automakers on an original equipment manufacturer basis.

The idea was also floated of turning the Prius into a sport-utility vehicle as SUVs have been popular.

The development team, however, decided to aim for a “car that is loved, not just valued for its numbers.” The hitherto development of Prius models had been done under such restrictions as having a streamlined design that could be recognized at a glance and the highest fuel efficiency among Toyota models. But for the development of the latest fifth-generation Prius, they decided to do away with such restrictions.

In the end, the design was changed, with the center of gravity lowered and the tires enlarged. Its fuel efficiency may not be as high as that of lightweight small cars, but the team was more concerned about making “a car that would be loved and driven for a long time.”

Changing the image that the Prius had accumulated over 25 years was not an easy task.

“I don’t think [President Toyoda] thought it would be possible because of the hardships we had endured in the past,” Humphries said.

When the development team decided on the direction to take, Toyoda said, “This is an interesting struggle.” He gave them a chance and when he saw the design, he said, “It’s cool!”