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Toyota Hints at a New and Very Different Plug-In Prius

By John Rosevear - Mar 15, 2016 at 4:20PM

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Toyota says it will show off a new model in New York next week. It looks likely to be a plug-in Prius, but it might look very different from the regular Prius sedan. Here's why.

Toyota released this "teaser" photo of an upcoming new model on Tuesday. It said the new vehicle will be unveiled in New York next week. Image source: Toyota.

Toyota (TM 0.84%) hinted on Tuesday that it will reveal a new "green" car at next week's New York International Auto Show. 

What Toyota said: Toyota's press release was very short. Here's the complete text:

Toyota reveals stand-out style, intelligent eco-tech at NY Auto Show," it said. "The city that never sleeps is about to get a wake-up call. Toyota is rolling out the next mechanical marvel in the Prius lineup at 9:10 a.m. EDT, Wednesday, March 23. Put limits in the rearview and check out the reveal at https://livestream.com/Toyota/NY2016.

It also included the "teaser" photo you see above. 

What's going on here?
While the taillights might hint at a new high-performance model, the new "mechanical marvel" is probably the plug-in version of the latest Toyota Prius. But the "teaser" photo above tells us that it might look very different from what we've come to expect. 

Toyota launched a completely redesigned version of the Prius sedan for 2016. The new 2016 Prius has been on sale for a couple of months now. It's a significant car for a few reasons, not least of which because it's the first Toyota product built on the company's all-new (and very flexible) vehicle architecture

But unlike the last-generation Prius PHEV ("plug-in hybrid vehicle"), which looked almost exactly like the "regular" hybrid Prius, the new plug-in version seems set to look quite different. Compare the taillights in that "teaser" photo with this rear view of the new-for-2016 Prius.

The "regular" version of the redesigned 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid sedan. Image source: Toyota.

Why would Toyota give the plug-in version of the new Prius a different look? Perhaps to help sales. 

Sales of the last-generation model were pretty dismal: Toyota sold 113,829 examples of the regular Prius sedan in the U.S. last year and just 4,191 of the plug-in variant. 

Sales of the last-generation Prius PHEV were probably hurt by the fact that it had very limited electric-only range. Its EPA-rated range on a full charge before the gasoline engine kicked in was just 11 miles. That's barely a fifth of the 53-mile range rating on General Motors' (GM 1.35%) latest Chevrolet Volt

I expect Toyota to boost the electric-only range of the new Prius PHEV significantly, if not quite to Volt levels. But I also expect that Toyota will give its new plug-in distinctive styling that clearly differentiates it from the regular Prius. 

Why Toyota might have chosen different styling
I have argued for years that a key reason why the Prius was able to get established as a mainstream model while rival hybrids from companies like Honda languished was because the Prius had unique and distinctive styling. It looked like something completely different, while Honda's entry looked like a Civic with slightly different rim. I think that appealed to car buyers who wanted their green-minded choice to stand out a bit.

The success of the Prius has made lots of car shoppers open to "regular" hybrids from other automakers. Hybrid cars are no longer a futuristic technology. But plug-ins are still a little bit "out there" for many folks. 

I bet Toyota is hoping on some level that if it makes the new Prius PHEV more distinctive, more differentiated from the regular Prius, it might benefit from the same kind of effect. 

Your humble Fool will be attending Toyota's presentation in New York next week. I'll have more to say about the new model and the thinking behind it after that. Stay tuned.

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