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Spy photos capture next-generation Toyota Prius weeks before debut

Spy photos capture next-generation Toyota Prius weeks before debut
The 2016 Toyota Prius, caught at a photo shoot in Malibu ahead of its Sept. 8 reveal in Las Vegas. (Brian Williams / SpiedBilde)

The next Toyota Prius will largely abandon the eco-chic egg shape of its previous three generations in favor of a more traditional sedan profile, spy shots of the new car revealed Friday.

Toyota has worked hard to keep the next generation of its popular Prius hybrid under wraps, but its efforts were undone by a photographer in Malibu this week.

The shots captured the dramatic new styling of the hybrid's fourth generation as the automaker was readying the car for its own photo shoot and briefly removed the tarp shrouding the vehicle.

The new Prius, which is to have its official unveiling Sept. 8 at a Toyota dealers conference in Las Vegas, looks far more conventional — like a current Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra — than previous generations of the hybrid. The car's iconic shape was purposely odd, both for aerodynamics and to make a bold statement about environmentally friendly motoring.

The new car is sportier, with a short snout, stretched windshield and wraparound headlights. The car looks lower to the ground, which would lower its center of gravity and improve the Prius' often-criticized driving characteristics. But it's hard to know without the vehicle specifications, and Toyota was not providing any information before the launch.

The new Prius has a dramatic crease at the top of the rear doors and body panels, and remains a hatchback. It also retains a long roofline, an aerodynamic nod that improves fuel economy. Designers have blacked out the rear pillar, making the roof appear to float over the rear deck.

The design appears to be following Toyota President Akio Toyoda's directive to create cars that are more stylish, emotional and fun to drive. The 2016 Prius replaces a version that's been on sale since 2009.

Initial reviews were positive.

"It was time for a change from the sharp angles and appliance-like styling of the current model," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis at the AutoPacific Inc. consulting firm.

"That car needs a design rebirth to have a shot because fuel efficiency alone will not do it anymore," said Karl Brauer, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "It looks like that is what Toyota delivered."

Falling national fuel prices and a shift in consumer preference toward crossovers and sport utility vehicles have eaten into the hybrid market.

Through the first seven months of this year, Prius sales — including the compact and wagon versions — have dived more than 15% to 108,073, according to Autodata Corp.

That's why the launch of the new model is important for Toyota and the hybrid segment of the auto market, Brauer said.

"If they can deliver a vehicle that is compelling to look at and have impressive fuel efficiency figures, it will be a success, even with lower gas prices," he said. "You need a great car that happens to get great gas mileage — that's what modern hybrids have to be."

Analyst John O'Dell of Edmunds.com, the Santa Monica auto information company, disagreed.

"People will want to know how many miles per gallon will it give — that is what sells Priuses," he said. "It doesn't sell based on its looks."

Nonetheless, anything Toyota can do to make it a better-driving car will be welcomed by consumers.

"If they can get some life into the car that will help sales and certainly mute a lot of Prius jokes," O'Dell said.

Last year, Toyota sold 207,635 of the three combined Prius models, accounting for 42% of the hybrid market, according to IHS Automotive.

It's by far the bestselling hybrid in U.S. history, having sold more than 1.8 million units since its debut as a 2001 model. It has, in recent years, often been the top-selling auto in California.

Even though there have been many other competitors in the hybrid segment in recent years, Toyota continues to have the most market share, and that's even as the current Prius model aged significantly.

Sullivan said maintaining a fuel economy lead over other vehicles remains an important feature of the car.

"When people think about Toyota, the Prius tells them that it is a green and environmentally responsible company," Sullivan said. "That does wonders for the rest of the brand."

Toyota has said little about the 2016 model, but the automaker has acknowledged a few key facts: It will be in dealerships by yea- end, come first in hatchback form only — with wagon and compact versions to arrive later — and look more like a conventional sedan.

It will drive more like one too, with sharper handling, according to Toyota. Fuel economy will improve by about 10%, to more than 55 mpg.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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