New Prius hatch arrives as battery charge almost depleted

The latest Prius is here, in better shape than ever … but how much interest is there any more? Statistics suggest this hybrid kingpin is on skid row in New Zealand, at least as a new car.


CONJECTURE that Toyota New Zealand is proposing to swing its hybrid drive away from the Prius hatch and toward a cheaper Corolla alternate is rising as the latest evolution of the landmark petrol-electric prepares for sale.

Also arising is a question: Why is Toyota New Zealand even bothering to launch the latest 4G Prius hatch (so-called because it’s the fourth generation), not least in three derivatives, when sales data for the past three years suggests this model – the most direct descendant of the ground-breaker of two decades ago – is now a critically-endangered species in as-new form?

Prius is a global phenomenon with around five million in circulation and Toyota New Zealand has done its bit, placing thousands of Prius hatchbacks over the past two decades.

Many more have arrived as used imports: Every generation of the car, even the preliminary type that was supposed to stay in Japan, is on our roads.

However, new car registrations statistics collated by New Zealand Transport Agency and Toyota New Zealand show demand for all Prius models is dwindling and that the core Prius hatch has been hardest hit – even during the past two years, when new car sales reached impressive and ultimately record height, Prius hatch’s stocks have kept falling.

That doesn’t mean there are fewer of them about: Look at all those taxis! Yet these are almost always ex-Japan used examples, not NZ-new cars. TNZ’s Signature Class programme is undoubtedly profiting, but not the new car side.

It’s true that the hatch has lost ground because the Prius is now a family. In addition to the hatch, there’s a wagon-ish model, the Prius V, and smaller city runabout, the Prius C. Prius V has been a quiet performer, but the baby, that recycles a 1.5-litre drivetrain handed down from the second-generation Prius hatch, has achieved rising popularity since 2013. But the data charting these trends can confuse.

NZTA suggests that in 2015 the C achieved 367 sales – whereas its ground-breaking big brother took just 30 (and the V 11). The agency charts the hatch as claiming 121 units in 2014 (against 287 C and 3 V), 549 in 2013 (no count for C, 55 for V) and 473 in 2012, a period when only the hatch was available.

Toyota New Zealand has questioned the NZTA data. It believes the agency's statisticians have in some years blended Prius C and Prius hatch counts. However, the figures the Palmerston North-based distributor provided to Motoring Network today make for even more sobering reading, at least insofar as the hatch is concerned.

The distributor says in fact 28 hatches were registered last year, not 30 (while the Prius C count was 367 cars and the V 11). In 2014, the distributor says 54 Prius hatch were registered (354 C, 3 V) while it moved 87 in 2013, against 462 C and 55 C.

Whichever way you read it, the conclusion is the same: Prius in any form is losing pace as a new car – from 604 units under this brand name sold in 2013, to 411 in 2014 and 408 last year – yet it’s the Prius hatch that is in very serious trouble.

Soon there will be another threat from within; a Corolla hatch hybrid that is set to come around June.

What impact will this new opportunity create? That question was asked on TNZ, with spokesman Morgan Dilks responding: ""We will be unpacking Corolla Hybrid sales objectives at our launch mid 2016."

The Camry Hybrid has already become a favoured alternate to the Prius route; it has achieved significant volume, too, over the past three years: 962 in 2013, then 686 and 789. 

Does it signal that consumers prefer this technology in an orthodox packaging? Does it prove the power of Toyota NZ's fleet sales muscle? Probably both. Camry Hybrid has only been here for a relatively short time, yet there are now almost as many of those in the market now as there are NZ-new Prius, of any generation. 

Could the Corolla be a final straw? Employing technology from the third generation Prius, it is surely set to slot between the $29,990 to $33,990 Prius C and the 4G, which starts at $47,490 in fleet-sorted entry GX format then rises to $49,990 for a GX Touring and tops with a $54,990 flagship ZR.

The Corolla is coming in just one, high-specification five-door form (a wagon and sedan available overseas are not being considered for now) and is surely set to exploit on several grounds.

It not only has mainstream appeal but is a bedrock product, frequent annual best seller status and a long history of sale here makes it a nameplate New Zealanders know, love and trust. A hybrid version, despite its unique drivetrain, will be a more comfortable fit than the Prius, which has always had something of the air of a science project about it.

Also, even though the hybrid Corolla will undoubtedly carry a premium over the ‘regular’ versions, it will not only still very likely be cheaper than the Prius, potentially hitting the mid-$30k to mid-$40k market sweet spot that Prius has always struggled to play in. And, being a Corolla, might it also be more set to benefit from the impressive pricing flexibility – translation, discounting - that TNZ is famous for?

Then again, perhaps Prius is one of these products that has such high status within the brand it simply has to stay on sale, regardless of how few are really sold.

Certainly, while Corolla Hybrid will perhaps look better value, the Prius hatch will nonetheless continue to provide a much stronger technology message.

A key change for the 4G is range-wide fitment of an advanced crash avoidance system that provisions lane departure alert with steering control function, all speed dynamic radar cruise control with automatic brake control and automatic high beam.

A significant technology deserving appreciation is not purely a special treat but a global implementation to accentuate the model’s standing as a technology leader.

(Interestingly, even with PCS across the range, Toyota NZ charges extra for three accident scene fundamentals – a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher and collapsible safety cone – that rival Hyundai makes standard.  With Toyota, the kit, extinguisher and cone respectively price at $137, $94 and $56).

The new model also introduces a fresh body with impressive aerodynamic virtues (the claimed drag co-efficient is a mere 0.24) and it debuts a global platform using more high-strength steel and providing 60 percent greater torsional rigidity. 

Styling-wise, it’s obviously as before: Different. A shape similar to that of the Mirai hydrogen car will court comment but it is a lot less frumpy than the current model. Some of the detailing is stunning. Those tail lights!

The lowered roofline is a big departure, but one that does not hurt the car’s practicality because the seating position in this edition is also lower. Taxi drivers take note: Passenger volume is fractionally smaller, boot space has grown.

Once again it has a wee handle for a gear shifter – well, why not, there are no gears – and this time the dashboard that now sweeps into the doors gracefully includes a central display in brilliant white plastic. Star Wars Stormtrooper white. Just like the late Holden Volt, in fact. Is Toyota paying homage?

Relocating the battery to under the seat improves the centre of gravity. This plus a redesigned rear suspension – double wishbones replacing the previous torsion beam axle – will give the model something new: Appeal as a driver’s car, Toyota believes.

That’s a new and good thing. However, where the Prius falls behind is in fundamental technology advancement: There’s no progress in respect to plug-in recharging.

Now common on Toyota hybrids overseas – though not, at this stage, the Corolla - and patently a trigger for emergent interest in electric cars here, the plug-in aspect is one that TNZ just cannot seem to get to grips with.

That’s not through lack of knowledge. TNZ has gained insight into the advantages and appeal of recharging through a long-term trial (it began in 2013) it has been running in-house, and with Massey University, with a special version of the outgoing car. However, it has always said the cost of the vehicle has been too high to stand NZ consumer interest.

However, while the Palmerston North distributor has suggested in the past that the new car will eventually adopt ability to recharge its batteries from a wall socket yet there’s no suggestion of when.

The facility allows the car to run purely on electric power for a much greater range than the couple of kilometres’ afforded the latest (and previous) models, but requires a change from the nickel-hydride battery technology the model has had for the past 20 years to more expensive lithium ion batteries.

At present, however, the Prius is as it always has been – a petrol car with some additional battery pep.

However, while the continuation of a 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder petrol engine in marriage with electric motors via a shared planetary gearset all sounds familiar, in this version everything has been overhauled and, in some case, miniaturised.

The main driver motor, starter generator and battery set are smaller than before, and Toyota says the main drive motor works over a broader speed range and is controlled by a more sophisticated electronic control unit.

While combined output of 72kW/142Nm is less than the previous car’s, the economy has improved to a claimed 3.4 litres per 100kmh.

The GX Touring differs from the entry car by swapping from 15-inch to ZR-shared 17-inch rims. The Touring also takes a a satellite navigation system with SUNA traffic channel also found on the ZR.

Who will buy it? That’s a question TNZ might answer when it shows Prius to media tomorrow though, interestingly, even that event is small-scale compared to previous Prius press events, with just six invitees. Time was when TNZ would seek to fill a conference room to tell this car’s story.

While Prius has lost ground, Toyota remains a major hybrid player; it also provides a number of Lexus cars in a battery-assisted format, starting with their version of the outgoing Prius, the CT200h, which outsold its donor by accruing 51 registrations in 2015. 

The global investment remains impressive. Toyota Japan’s aim is to sell 30,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2020 as part of a sweeping new environmental plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions that reaches to the year 2050. It also expects to rely on hybrids for decades: Around seven million additional cars within five years, making a total count of 15 million on the world’s roads by 2020, double the present tally. 

Kiwis’ interest in cars that are not wholly fossil fuel-reliant has been dampened by low fuel prices and, potentially, Government disinterest in providing incentives, aside from excusing electric cars from Road User Charges.

Despite this, interest in the types is on the increase, albeit slowly. The registrations count of partially and wholly electric cars has only recently topped 1000 units. Even so, the country supports a good range of new types, including BMW’s high-visibility ‘i’ cars and even, though they cannot be bought new here due to the lack of distributor, Tesla sedans.

Ironically, the most popular feature the plug-in electric technology that TNZ has not been willing to invest in: The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, though not as popular as full petrol editions of that SUV, is nonetheless comfortably established as the top-selling electric-prioritised car here, with 139 registrations in 2015.

More of its type might be coming; both Hyundai and Kia, for instance, showing interest in entering with its technology-sharing Ioniq and Niro that are unique in being built in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and pure electric formats, a world-first achievement.

Will Prius hatch survive long enough to see this?