In 1997, Toyota’s Prius hatch became the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, available first in Japan and then, from 2000, to the rest of the world.
Now into its third generation, the Prius remains an icon of the increasingly popular hybrid market. But as the technology becomes available in a wider range of vehicle styles, Prius sales have begun to level off.
Speaking with industry paper Auto News at this month’s Automotive World conference, Toyota R&D boss Soichiro Okudaira promised a major boost in technology and style for the next Prius.
"When we look at the next-generation Prius, we will have a new type of hybrid system. We will make it even smaller, lighter and less expensive. That will strengthen its commercial attractiveness," Okudaira said.
He added that Toyota is still considering battery options, debating whether to use a nickel-metal hydride system or a lithium-ion setup - or to offer versions with one or the other as an option.
Lithium-ion batteries have become prevalent in recent years, thanks to their lightness and energy density compared to nickel batteries.
The Prius range’s electric system has been powered by nickel-metal hydride batteries since the first generation launched in 1997, although the current Prius Plug-in Hybrid EV uses lithium-ion.
The larger and newer Prius V people-mover also uses a lithium-ion system, suggesting the new Prius hatch will likely move in this direction.
Earlier, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota global design boss Simon Humphries promised a more compelling design for the new Prius.
"It has to be a revolution this time around," Simon Humphries told Automotive News.
"The last redesign was evolutionary, and when stylists try two evolutionary designs in a row,” he said, "things go wrong. That's kind of like an unwritten rule."
If nothing else, moving to a design with more mainstream appeal would go a long way toward satisfying Toyota boss Akio Toyoda's demand for more "emotional" models.
Humphries offered little in the way of a hint for what’s to come, but with the next Prius expected to appear in 2015, we could see a concept soon.