Toyota struggles to save breakthrough Prius hybrid

There’s also a lot more technology, something that appears to appeal to buyers of a vehicle using a high-tech powertrain. There’s a tablet-sized 11.6-inch touchscreen, lots of USB ports, Apple CarPlay and the Toyota Safety Sense suite of advanced driver assistance systems, such as forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

But the biggest addition for 2019 is an electric all-wheel-drive system that markedly improves the Prius hatchback’s grip on slick roads, as Toyota set out to demonstrate during its media preview in frigid Kohler.

The system is a simpler version of the all-wheel-drive technology found on some products, and works only at relatively low speeds, but it helps Toyota maintain Prius’s position as “an affordable hybrid.” A base model starts at just $23,770, and versions with all-wheel-drive start at $26,380.

Still, Toyota officials concede that the 2019 updates aren’t going to be enough to keep Prius a viable player going into a future where, as Brinley points out, virtually all products will use some form of electric drive. General Motors and Volkswagen are planning to eliminate gas and diesel drive technology entirely.

“Toyota has to be ready to respond to these trends” reshaping the automotive market and might even have to consider the possibility of either shifting to a crossover body style or adding a CUV to the broader Prius family that today also includes the small Prius C and bigger Prius V.

“I don’t think Prius can be the same as before,” said Kaneko, looking forward to the gen-5 model that is just now beginning to enter the development process. “Our role is to figure out what we can do with it. We need to find a new direction.”

Though Toyota won’t discuss the timing of that next model, its traditional product cadence would suggest it should reach market by around the 2022 model year. That is, of course, assuming Prius remains part of the brand’s line-up. But considering how much Toyota has invested in the world’s first hybrid, it clearly will be reluctant to give up on Prius without trying out every possible approach to keeping it viable.

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