March 25th, 2009
12:38 PM GMT
Toyota has unveiled the much-anticipated third generation of it's best-selling Prius hybrid car, promising greener credentials, better performance and a smoother ride - but with cheaper rides competing for its slice of the dwindling car market, can it deliver?
Similar in appearance to the previous two generations, the Prius 2010 stands out, say engineers, when you drive it.
"This time, we have both engine and motor strength. A balance between performance and fuel efficiency," says the Prius' chief engineer, Akihiko Otsuka.
The new version of the Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid vehicle, boasts 10 percent increased fuel efficiency, its makers say. Engineers claim their success with this version comes with increasing performance, jumping engine size from 1.5 liters to 1.8 liters and boosting horsepower from 110 to 160. Engineers say the increased performance was met by keeping the weight of the car down and improving aerodynamics.
CNN was invited to test drive the prototype, due to release worldwide this year. The new Prius has three driving modes to give the driver options to increase fuel efficiency, from an "eco" to "EV" to "power" mode. The power mode focuses on performance, so the vehicle drives like a sporty sedan. The EV and eco mode will remind Prius fans of the first and second generation models.
Driving it on the Fuji Speedway, it seemed to deliver on the engineers' promise of performance, hitting 70 kilometers per hour in seconds. But that was in power mode. In eco-mode, the Prius matched the familiar, quiet (and much slower) pick up of the second generation. The engineers say to get the 10 percent fuel efficiency improvement, you can't exactly drive that sporty power mode all the time.
The Prius also continues to forge ahead with eco-friendly touches, like a new solar panel on the roof that runs vents in the summer to keep the car cooler when idle.
Toyota is banking on the popularity of the hybrid as a bright spot in what's been a sagging portfolio since the credit crisis began. But analysts say that expected profit could be smaller, thanks to a challenge from Honda.
Honda re-introduced its Insight, an updated model of Honda's first stab at the hybrid race. The Insight is priced lower than the Prius, approximately US $3,000 less. Toyota says despite media speculation that it would lower the price of its 2010 Prius, the current price won't waver. Analysts say the success of the new Prius depends on what the car buyer is willing to pay for in this recession.
"No doubt the Insight is a lot cheaper than the Prius," says Credit Suisse auto analyst Koji Endo. "But at the same time, the Prius is supposed to be a little higher quality and little bit more luxury segment. The Prius should have low emission, better fuel mileage and higher quality standards. So the question is, are you going to pay for price or are you chasing the performance?"
The Prius goes on sale in the US in late spring, mid-May in Japan, and early summer in Europe.
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