NAIAS Preview: Toyota Prius Family
By Charles Krome
After 10 years and nearly a million units sold in the U.S., the Toyota Prius is finally getting a sibling. In fact, it’s getting a whole family. The approaching North American International Auto Show in Detroit will see the introduction of an MPV version of the Prius, a plug-in hybrid model and a separate Prius concept vehicle of some sort. This will be a long overdue expansion of the Prius brand that could help Toyota recapture some of its mojo here in the U.S.—at least if fuel prices start to rise.
The MPV strikes me as a particularly interesting proposition, coming as it does when minivans in general are seeing renewed interest in the marketplace and mini-minivans, like the Ford C-MAX, are just about to hit the mainstream. Plus, both of those kinds of vehicles are typically used for extended stop-start driving routines, as parents drop off kids here, pick them up there and run to the grocery store in between. In other words, exactly the sort of driving situations in which hybrids are supposed to excel.
Toyota has kept a tight lid on the vehicle, though, and it’s not clear whether it will have three rows of seats, something I think is needed if it is to compete against the C-MAX. The automaker doesn’t mention that one way or another in its teasers, merely indicating the MPV will have 50 percent more cargo space than the current Prius. But you can see from the accompanying photo that it’s a little longer than the standard Prius, say 178 inches long or so, putting it right in line with the Ford. And that offers three rows of “5+2” seating: Five spots for adults and two for kids. Don’t let the shot of the MPV’s flat cargo floor fool you, either; I’ve no doubt two of those “+2”-style chairs could be tucked under there somehow.
As for the plug-in Prius, it now has to be considered a sort of junior Chevrolet Volt. Per Toyota (and our own review, courtesy of a rare multi-day media loan of this car), the former will have an all-electric driving range of about 13 miles, at speeds of up to 62 mph, and be fully rechargeable in 90 minutes with a 220-volt connection (or roughly three hours with a standard 110-volt outlet). Color me unimpressed. With Toyota’s “commercial launch” of the vehicle not occurring until 2012, it will have to offer a very steep discount over the Volt—but not step on the price tag of the standard Prius—to find any significant success with customers.
Finally, I’m going to guess the third Prius intro at Detroit with be a sporty-ish hybrid coupe in the mold of the Honda CR-Z. On paper, the concept of a fun-to-drive hybrid makes a lot of sense, but in the real world, we’re still waiting to see a vehicle that offers the right mix of performance and fuel efficiency. Perhaps this will be it.
A couple of years ago, I would have said that Toyota launching three new hybrids under the Prius name would be like giving the company a license to print money. Now, with stable gas prices holding down hybrid sales on one side of the equation, and the Volt and Nissan LEAF taking over as fuel-efficiency icons on the other side, the launch of the Prius family might not add up to the kind of success Toyota was hoping for.