Toyota Boosts Prius Mileage and Looks While Keeping Price Steady

  • U.S. misses out on AWD Prius, gets gas-electric version RAV4
  • Improvements needed to draw back owners of best-selling hybrid

How do you boost demand for the best-selling hybrid ever when gasoline prices are approaching a six-year low? Toyota Motor Corp. will try making its looks, drive and mileage better, and isn’t messing with the price tag.

The 2016 Prius will be rated about 52 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, up from 50 mpg on the current version, and more than any other car without a plug, Toyota estimates. A new Eco version with a lighter battery and extra-inflated tires may score a 56 mpg rating. The $24,200 entry price remains the same, with higher trim levels topping out at $30,000 before delivery fees.

It’s the first model on Toyota’s new global platform that’s intended to share parts and reduce development costs by 20 percent. The effort frees up money to make cars like Prius much more attractive inside and out, with sculpted body panels, more modern-looking gauges, and a stiffer ride.

“A freshened and improved Prius helps, but it’s going to be tough to move the
needle, given where gas prices are,” said Jeff Schuster, a Southfield, Michigan-based analyst for LMC Automotive. “The improved model will likely draw existing, loyal Prius owners back for an upgrade.”

No AWD

For the U.S. market, the longer, lower and wider Prius is available in six feature packages, none of which include all-wheel-drive, a feature Toyota will offer for the first time in Japan. The company tested its compact electronic four-wheel system, called E-Four, for three years in areas of Japan where drivers cope with snowy winters, said Kouji Toyoshima, the Prius’s chief engineer.

“You have to wait for a long time indeed, because you have to secure the reliability of that system in other parts of the world, where we haven’t done testing yet,” Toyoshima told reporters at Fuji Speedway, a race track in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture.

The new Prius includes optional autonomous safety features, such as emergency braking to avoid colliding with pedestrians or other cars at speeds of as much as 25 miles per hour. A park-assist feature requires the driver only to apply and release brake pressure, as the car steers itself into a space.

Other options include lane-departure warnings with adjustable sensitivities, for drivers who don’t like to be beeped at as much. A gentle auto-steer also reduces the chance that you accidentally drive off the road or into neighboring vehicles.

RAV4 Refresh

Toyota’s safety package also will be available on the refreshed RAV4 compact SUV. As the company aims to tap into that booming segment and grow U.S. sales to 400,000 a year -- about a 50 percent jump from its 2014 total -- the brand will look to broaden RAV4’s appeal by adding a sporty SE edition and hybrid version that may be rated at a combined 33 mpg.

With the addition of RAV4, the Toyota brand will have eight hybrid models in the U.S. The company has a total of 30 across 90 markets.

The hybrid RAV4 includes all-wheel-drive capabilities that deliver livelier handling on twisty mountain roads and better stability if you’re towing a jet ski on a windy day.

Toyota is looking to “grow and expand in the hottest segment of the industry,” said Bill Fay, the brand’s U.S. sales chief. “We think we’re going to broaden our appeal.”

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