This past September, Triple Pundit was on the scene when Toyota premiered a sporty red 2016 Prius in Las Vegas for photographers, and just last week the company invited us to California for two days of pre-release driving on the open road. We're happy to report that the visual promise of the Las Vegas photo op is fully realized when you're behind the wheel, whether you're zipping past trucks on I-5, scooting through local traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway, or threading the curves of Ortega Highway, up and around the hills to Cleveland National Forest. We can also give you the inside scoop on how the company's all new 2016 RAV4 hybrid performs on the road.
For the foreseeable future there will still be plenty of room for vehicles with gas tanks, and Toyota seems more determined than ever to own the hybrid gas-electric part of that market. Toyota was in the vanguard of popularizing hybrid technology for the mass market when it launched the Prius globally back in 2001 (after its 1997 launch in Japan), long before the urgency of carbon management took hold. Despite the drop in gas prices, Prius sales have been surging and a new generation of eco-conscious drivers (including cab and Uber drivers, by the way) is pushing the trend to higher sales in the future.
While Toyota's efforts to crack the full battery EV market seem a bit tepid compared to some other auto makers -- the short lived RAV4 EV being one example -- the company seems to have its eyes on a bigger prize. This fall Toyota launched the futuristic Mirai, its first commercial hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, calling it a "turning point in automotive history."
Toyota has also engaged in other fuel cell projects linked to sustainable hydrogen production (for those of you new to the topic, fuel cell vehicles are electric, but they use a chemical reaction to generate electricity on the go, rather than storing electricity in a battery as with plug-in EVs).
We're thinking that Toyota will continue deploying hybrid technology to draw in new waves of new buyers to its brand, even borrowing ideas from the EV market to make gas fueling more convenient for hybrid owners, while paving the way for mass adoption of fuel cell vehicles powered by sustainable hydrogen.
It's also worth noting that the Mirai is designed with a power control unit borrowed from the Prius, so Prius owners are already riding on a piece of the future.
Toyota personnel also explained the reasoning behind the introduction of a more powerful model to the line (we drove a candy apple red one, pictured above). With the eco-conscious market in hand, Toyota is seeking to attract auto buyers who value a more youthful look and a more sporty feel. That includes older drivers as well as the much sought-after millennial market.
We tried both the eco and the sporty models, and they both certainly delivered. Take it from someone who has never driven a Toyota -- or a hybrid -- before, as soon as you get behind the wheel and adjust your seat, you feel right at home in both models.
We took the the eco for a short spin on a handling course, and it took the rapidfire series of curves, bends and obstacles without a hitch. The real fun started when we hopped in the sport model and took it for a spin down the I-5 and on to Ortega highway, up into the steep hills. The transition from flat-out freeway driving to local traffic and on to a two-lane country highway was absolutely seamless, and we have to admit that part of the fun was catching double-takes from other Prius drivers who were surprised to see a jazzier version of their ride cruising down the road.
No, we didn't forget the new RAV4 hybrid. Toyota put a lot of effort into transferring its hybrid technology into the sport utility vehicle platform, and it pays off. We took a RAV4 hybrid on the same route as the Prius, and it handled the same traffic and speed transitions with fluid ease. This longtime gasmobile SUV driver (since 2002) can certainly testify that switching off to a hybrid is as easy and intuitive as getting behind the wheel of any other conventional car. The power control unit does all the work of juggling the battery and the gas tank, and you just sit back and enjoy.
Among other projects, Toyota recently introduced the Toyota Mobility Foundation to help solve mobility challenges globally, and just last year it ramped up its efforts in the North America by establishing a new office for social innovation.
Photo credit: 2016 Prius parked by the Ortega Oaks Candy Store on Ortega Highway, across from the San Juan Loop and Bear Canyon trailheads in Cleveland National Forest (original photo by Tina Casey).
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.