Unresolved mysteries of the 4th gen Prius

Its design is an acquired taste - the 4th gen Prius in Fuji

Its design is an acquired taste – the 4th gen Prius in Fuji

Last week, Toyota trucked a group of journalists to the Fuji racetrack for a heavily embargoed test drive of the new Prius. On the design of the 4th generation model, the consensus of the media was that it is an acquired taste. All present were in agreement that in terms of drivability, the difference between current and new Prius is like night and day. I understand that U.S. journalists were invited to a likewise embargoed drive event in Southern California. When this story goes on-line, and possibly a bit earlier, there will be loads of articles about design and drivability, so let’s focus on the big mysteries of the 4th gen Prius: its 4 wheel drive, and its batteries.

Only for Japan, and for a long time: Prius all wheel drive

Only for Japan, and for a long time: Prius all wheel drive

“4 wheel drive?” you ask. Yes, the new Prius will have that, but only in Japan. Much to the delight of its many Japanese customers that live in areas where it snows a lot, Toyota managed to pack a high output motor and gears into a package the size of two breadboxes, and to coax this into the rear axle without eating up trunk space or demanding a transmission tunnel. Customers in other parts of the world will “have to wait a long time” for the all-wheel version, Prius chief engineer Koji Toyoshima told the reporters assembled at the Fuji racetrack. Reason being, at least according to Toyoshima, is that Toyota has tested the unit for three years in Japan, but hasn’t done so in the U.S. and Europe. “We have to do that first,” Toyoshima told reporters who already had fantasized about using an all-wheel Prius in frigid Michigan.

The NiMH battery

Who will get the NiMH battery?

Toyota engineers never lie, but you have to ask them the right questions. Another engineer, who shall remain nameless to protect his career, told me that the rear unit still needs some work. “Its torque is not what I would like it to be,” the engineer told me. “Also, the motor does not regenerate.” Then, there was something about gears, but most got lost in translation, and what got through, went right over my head.

The Li-Ion battery

Who will get the Li-Ion battery?

The 4th generation Prius will come either with a NiMH, or with a Li-ion battery. Which battery goes where is a mystery. Will customers be able to choose their battery? Will the different batteries go to different markets? All of the above? Reporters of Automotive News, Reuters, Bloomberg, and Dailykanban tried their level best to trip up project manager Shinsuke Sugano, but he steadfastly maintained that Toyota is “not ready to make an announcement of which battery is being used where.” At the Tokyo Motor Show, chief engineer Koji Toyoshima had told Roger Shreffler of Wards Auto that the U.S. and Japan will get both, that Europe will get NiMH, and that the rest of the world is undecided. A week later, this story had changed. Or at least, it was muddled. What we got out of Sugano was that the price of the two batteries will be “almost the same,” and that the performance will be likewise nearly identical. That being the case, “how will you market the two battery systems?” we asked Sugano. Evasive action.

The world media congregates in Fuji

The world media congregates in Fuji

Indeed, there is no perceptible difference between the batteries. We were given a NiMH, and a Li-ion version to drive around the Fuji racetrack, and we were mostly unable to tell them apart.  We also were provided with a current version Prius.  It was a lumbering hog compared to its successor, the new TNGA architecture with the lower center of gravity is making itself felt in a good way.

While we were at it, Craig Trudell of Bloomberg asked Toyoshima whether the Prius would ever be built outside of Japan. That triggered an interesting philosophical excurse. Building the car elsewhere is a possibility once the Prius becomes mainstream, said the chief engineer,

but we have to discuss at Toyota whether the Prius should become a mainstream car. Toyota wants Prius to be a pioneer. To be a pioneer, you have to be a challenger. To be a major car, we have to sell a lot. These two values, they don’t fit. The Prius is not a Corolla. Do we really want to sell a lot of Prius?”

Drivability is like night and day, as Reuters reporters are about to find out

Drivability is like night and day, as Reuters reporters are about to find out

In the braggadocio world of automobiles, this was the biggest understatement I have ever heard. Cumulative sales of the Prius (all versions) exceed 5 million. Throughout its history, the Prius was the best-selling hybrid car. In Japan, the Prius sedan used to be the best-selling car for many years, a title it relinquished to its Aqua cousin, named Prius C in America. After the model changeover – in Japan, the new Prius goes on sale in December – JDM sales of the new Prius could scale new heights.

Viewed through the eyes of Toyota, that’s not mainstream. If you make 10 million cars a year, I guess that changes your perspective.

P.S.: My friend Ash sends this from, China:

“Prius was made in China in HEV mode only for 2nd/3rd gen, but was removed from sale quietly when it didn’t sell too well.  The Levin and Corolla twin motor HEV are taking its place, priced 100k RMB cheaper.”