If the VW emissions folly signals that gas engine technology has peaked, Toyota’s re-engineered 2016 Prius might signal the same for hybrids. Sure, the incremental gain in fuel economy and more-than-incremental gain in handling bespeak devout engineering effort, but they don’t approach the feverish pace of improvement in the EV camp.
Tesla sees a doubling of battery energy density every 10 years. Has the Prius doubled anything in the last decade? No. The 2016 Prius has boosted fuel economy by 21 percent over the 2006 model if you look strictly at the latest 56 mpg “Eco” version. Otherwise, the gain is 13 percent. Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive is a terrific, reliable setup. But compared with the pace at Tesla, the Prius is frozen in time, and is therefore a sitting duck. This poster child for hybrids, the first one to hit the elusive tipping point, might make the loudest thud in next few years as EVs hit a tipping point of their own with Model III.
Curb appeal, or curbed appeal?
“We forgot style.” That’s the punchline of a Toyota Venza ad. It comes when a guy sporting white socks and Birkenstocks realizes his Subaru is homely next to the Venza, and tells his frumpy wife that they blew it. With that in mind, we turn to the new Prius. And then we quickly turn AWAY from the new Prius. Green cars have lost their license to be ungainly. Tesla has revoked it for all. So this new Prius is in violation as soon as it backs out of your garage. The car with the highest BF in automotive history seems complacently homely. What’s BF? Birkenstock Factor.
Burning gas moves to back burner
Toyota is rightly attempting to shift the focus to fun, as cheapish gas shuffles buyer priorities. At the official launch, fuel economy never made it onstage. Imagine that! The accompanying press release barely mentions the subject. It’s all about the allegedly beautiful styling and the thrill of driving the new Prius. And yes, this new Prius does handle far better, according to early reviews. The problem is, Model III is very likely to offer far stronger sex appeal and driving dynamics. True, we’ll all be passengers in automated cars eventually, but driving still matters for a while.
Price canyon is narrowing fast
You want a Tesla, but you drive a Prius for 70% less money? Makes sense. But will it make sense when the delta is zero? The top-drawer Prius with top-drawer tech packages will push you into the low $30s, overlapping the bottom-end Model III when you include tax incentives. Another thing: Both cars will attract people with plenty of dough, who simply don’t want to blow it on a six-figure car. So even if Model III’s initial run tends toward the high end of the spectrum, around $50k, even that could poach would-be Prius buyers who can justify the ROI of a Tesla, given the OTA updates and zero fuel consumption and ironclad resale value.
Pedigree no longer Toyota’s advantage
Tesla’s image could not possibly get better. It’s a renegade company that challenges the law on multiple fronts, extends a middle finger to car pocket-picking car dealers and gas stations, skips normal advertising, takes chances with vanguard technology, kicks everyone’s buttocks in drag races and has a bona fide rocket engineer in charge. He uses foul language sometimes, too. Young people swoon. Toyota’s image is super value with super reliability. Nice! Not quite rocket engineer nice, but nice. The Prius’s image in particular has indeed matured from an obnoxious accessory for liberals to a smart vehicle for smart people of all stripes. But the BF factor remains high. So too does the parental factor. Young readers here might agree that the Prius in the driveway even smells like parents. Not cool. Social media bear this out.
It might not happen next year, but by 2020, the tech-forward car of Y2k will have to hand the torch to the Mirai, its dubious styling inspiration, and hope for the best. Hybrids will have run their course.