- The next Prius should deliver close to 55 mpg fuel economy.
- Power and handling performance also will increase as Toyota tries to bring "sportiness" to its hybrid lineup.
- Toyota believes hybrids and electric-drive vehicles including fuel-cell electrics are here to stay and that sales will increase as governments and society continue to call for less oil use and reduced emissions from passenger vehicles.
YPSILANTI, Michigan — Toyota's next Prius — expected to roll out as a 2015 model — is likely to be bigger, quicker, more fun to drive, more efficient and may be slightly less Prius-looking than the car that has become synonymous with "hybrid" in the minds of most American car shoppers.
Indeed, broad hints that top Toyota executives are dropping right and left at a global hybrid program being held near Detroit this week suggest that the fourth-generation Prius will come with a sportier suspension, quicker steering, more horsepower and even greater fuel efficiency than its predecessor.
That improved fuel economy will be the result of a lighter but more powerful electric motor and a gas engine that Toyota Motor Corp. managing officer Satoshi Ogiso described as a "world's best" with greater than 40 percent thermal efficiency — the amount of propulsion energy derived from its fuel. That compares to the present generation Prius' 38.5 percent efficiency and the typical modern gasoline engine's 30-35 percent efficiency.
He suggested that a 10 percent improvement in the current model's 50 mpg combined city and highway fuel economy rating — to 55 mpg — is the company's minimum goal for its next Prius.
The next generation of Toyota hybrids will use batteries with greater energy density, delivering more power from a smaller and lighter package.
The new hybrid powertrain, Ogiso said, also will cost less than the present system, helping Toyota keep a lid on the price of the car.
The new Prius will "ride on a vastly improved chassis," said Ogiso, a chassis engineer who was a member of the original Prius development team that was assembled in 1993.
It also "will have a lower center of gravity and increased structural rigidity — for beneficial gains in ride and handling, agility and aerodynamics," he said.
While Ogiso wouldn't offer specifics, a top member of the company's North American environmental group suggested that the new Prius might well share the double wishbone rear suspension of the Toyota Auris Hybrid — a midsize hatchback sold in Europe and Japan.
In other remarks about Toyota's future hybrid plans, Ogiso said the company intends to develop a wireless charging system for the Prius Plug-in Hybrid.
Toyota also is "considering" present plug-in Prius owners' requests for more all-electric range for the car, which now delivers about 11 miles of electric drive before reverting to conventional gas-electric hybrid mode.
Recent cancellation of a development program for a hybrid powertrain for the full-size Toyota Tundra pickup doesn't mean the company has dropped the idea of a hybrid pickup, he said. "We have not lost interest, and we are continuing to study the option," said Ogiso.
Toyota also will move beyond gasoline in its hybrids with a hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle that it will debut in January at the upcoming 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The car — which the company has hinted could deliver 300 miles or more of range on a tank of its gaseous hydrogen fuel — will go on sale "in global markets," including the U.S., in 2015, Ogiso said.
He did not comment on the acknowledged stumbling block of providing a network of hydrogen refueling stations to keep fuel cell cars running, but other Toyota insiders suggested that the company intends to be actively involved, or even a financier, in promoting development of a hydrogen fueling system in the U.S.
All next-generation hybrid hints were dropped during an event Toyota is billing as the first-ever gathering of all 23 of the hybrid vehicles it sells globally.
The theme of the gathering is that the hybrid powertrain is part of the company's core now, and not just a technology that bridges the gap between the internal combustion engine and its eventual replacement.
"If it is a bridge, it is a very, very long one, "that still will be around 50 or 60 years from now," said Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada.
Uchiymada is another member of the original Prius development team. His remarks came via a videotaped statement that was broadcast during the conference.
Edmunds says: Faster, fun and more efficient? Who can argue with that as a new marketing strategy for the acknowledged leader in hybrid technology?