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Tina Casey headshot

Toyota's Long Bet Pays Off with Sporty 2017 Prius Plug-In Hybrid EV

By Tina Casey

Toyota gave automotive reporters a sneak peek at its 2017 lineup last month. The event included a chance to test-drive the 2017 Prius plug-in hybrid electric vehicle models along the winding canyon roads outside of Ojai, California. I was invited to attend on behalf of TriplePundit.

Aside from an all-around great driving experience, the trip underscored one good reason why companies like Toyota are so successful: They plan ahead and don't let temporary trends throw them off message.

Toyota 2017 lineup saves gas -- so there, OPEC

In the kickoff presentation for the media event, Toyota execs said the here-and-now reality of low gasoline prices has dampened the enthusiasm for EVs in the mass market. As a result, Toyota foresees relatively soft demand for EVs over the next few years.

Nevertheless, the automaker was emphatic about its commitment to investing in fuel-efficiency improvements, including its hybrid EV technology.

That's where the long bet comes in. The presentation took place on Sept. 22, and barely two weeks later, OPEC announced its first production curtailment in a generation.

The news has already caused global oil prices to rise. According to some analysts, that doesn't necessarily mean an extreme price spike is coming. However, it does indicate the cycle of low-cost gasoline is likely coming to an end.

Once the oil price increase trickles into the retail gasoline market, it should motivate a new surge of demand for fuel-efficient vehicles in general and EVs in particular.

So, hats off to Toyota for sticking with its commitment to fuel efficiency.

That said, if you're in the market for a small, fuel-efficient new car, the 2017 Corolla should make your list of test drives. The handling on steep inclines and curves out in the desert was as smooth and easy as driving through local traffic. (We also got a chance to drive the sporty 86, and the handling on the Corolla compares favorably.)

For those of you who need a minivan or SUV, the Highlander and Sienna were much more agile on the road than you might expect from a large vehicle.

Toyota focused particular care on improving the Prius, and it shows. In addition to the fuel-efficiency focus, the company was careful to provide current Prius owners with a motivation to upgrade in terms of aesthetics, convenience, comfort and safety.

The safety angle is also an important one. If gas prices remain relatively low, new technologies for a safer road experience provide a motivating sales angle.

An EV for the EV-curious

Speaking of the Prius, if you'd like to drive an EV but need a car with high range, this is the model that lets you dip a toe in the EV water.

The challenge is to keep the cost of the car competitive. Long-range batteries are heavy and expensive, so Toyota went with a smaller, lighter battery. The range is relatively low by some standards. But according to Toyota, about half of its U.S. drivers could easily use the Prius in full EV mode for their daily commutes and errands.

For drivers with workplace charging (an increasingly common circumstance), the number bumps up to 80 percent.

To prove the point, Toyota sent us out on a "mandatory" route on full EV. Aside from the comfortable feeling of not burning gasoline, the extra-quiet, battery-powered ride made for a seamless driving experience.

Another cost factor for EV owners is the installation of a home charging station. The Prius gets around that one by using a battery that can be charged from an ordinary household outlet.

Toyota also partnered with ChargePoint to make using public charging stations as easy as pumping gas.

Another reason to go EV

The full effects of the OPEC announcement haven't trickled down to the retail level yet, but drivers across the southeastern U.S. got a major hint of things to come last month.

Just a few days before Toyota executives gave us their pitch in California, halfway across the country in Alabama a major leak was discovered in the Colonial Pipeline. That's a key transportation route for petroleum products originating from Texas refineries, destined for points east.

The pipeline was shut down after the leak was discovered on Sept. 9. As a result, Georgia and several other states across the Southeast declared emergencies to ward off the price-gouging that typically results from shortages.

Nevertheless, gas prices spiked and panic-buying set in, leading to the kind of long lines at gas stations not seen since the 1970s oil crisis.

That's one experience an EV owner could skip entirely.

When a gas crisis is not news

If you don't live in the Southeast and this shortage is news to you, join the club. Last month's gasoline crisis did not gain much traction in the national media spotlight.

Part of the reason could be that the Colonial Pipeline leak occurred in a relatively remote area. It did not impact neighborhoods or public water supplies.

In addition, at least some of the leakage was contained in an existing retention pond affiliated with an unused mining site. It does not appear to have affected the nearby Peel Creek and Cahaba River.

The high drama of the 2016 presidential election cycle is probably another factor that edged the southeastern gas crisis out of the national spotlight.

Now that the pipeline has been fixed, the story has been almost entirely dropped. All in all, the pipeline owners (which include the Koch brothers' Koch Capital Investments) are probably relieved they escaped an excess of negative attention.

However, the fact is that the U.S. is cross-hatched by aging pipelines. Keeping up with repairs and replacement could begin to exert more upward pressure on the price of petroleum products. And price volatility could very well lead to a rise in EV adoption. If that happens, it appears Toyota is ready.

Photo: Toyota plug-in hybrid Prius EV by Tina Casey.



Tina Casey headshot

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.

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