The new hybrid is longer, wider, lower and a bit roomier. It has a new double-wishbone suspension and a lower center of gravity that should give it more sporty handling. It has a more lavishly equipped interior, adds more safety and infotainment technology, and adopts a new, more aggressive exterior design.
That said, there was general agreement among those attending the Tuesday night preview that the new Prius is less visually distinctive and more mainstream than the first three generations.
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It remains to be seen how consumers respond to that. Part of the appeal of the earlier models was the fact that the car immediately stood out as something different. But internal Toyota research also found that some potential buyers didn't like the hybrid's quirky shape.
"It should have broader appeal because it is more conventional looking," John O'Dell, a specialist in green car technology for data service Edmunds.com, said of the 2016 model.
Toyota is keeping many of the details about the new Prius secret prior to its launch early next year. For example, it won't discuss what changes it has made to the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, though it has been widely reported that it will have a larger, 1.8-liter gas engine paired with its twin electric motors.
While final mileage numbers have yet to be determined by the EPA, Toyota hasn't ignored fuel economy, however. The automaker said it is anticipating the 2016 Prius will get about 10 percent better mileage than the current model—which would translate into something around 55 mpg in the combined city/highway cycle. That would be the best mileage of any vehicle on the road except for a handful of plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles.
But with energy sector analysts predicting gas prices could dip to $2 a gallon by year-end, the question is whether fuel efficiency matters as much as it did during the peak years of the third-generation Prius, when gas cost twice as much and appeared to be heading toward $5 a gallon or higher.