Here’s What A Professional Car Designer Thinks About The Stunning New 2023 Toyota Prius

Priusdesign Top

Alright! Your Autopian in-house designer has returned! I’ve spent the last three weeks road-tripping around the Land of The Free (Drink Refills) and meeting some of my fellow inmates Autopians. I am now in a position to confirm the following horrifying truths: Torch lives in a proper people house and actually does wear pants, Mack Hardigraw is an internet Terminator in a human skin suit who gives good Columbian chicken, and David Tracy is not surrounded by a permanent cloud of dirt like Pig Pen from Peanuts and does indeed own The World’s Greatest Truck (which he graciously let me drive). But now I’m back on my damp little island with its revolving door of Prime Ministers and it’s time to get down to some serious design business. To wit: what the hell is going on at Toyota at the moment – are they suddenly making cars you might actually want to buy as opposed to wheeled white goods? Check out the 2023 Toyota Prius.

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Overnight (and just in time for the LA Auto Show, where I understand there is some sort of fancy soiree happening that I’m not going to with shrimp served out of a wheelbarrow), Toyota revealed the new, fifth generation Prius and it’s quite the looker. No I’m not being my usual snarky self here – it’s a properly good looking car. I know we’re on the alternate timeline but what the hell?

The truth is quietly Toyota has been knocking out some quite tidily designed hatches for a couple of years now, but you’d be forgiven for missing them because they haven’t been available in the US. Both the Aygo X and Yaris Cross (a mini compact and sub compact, or Euro sub-B and B-class cars — see below) took the slightly overdone RAV4 language, removed the visual frippery and emerged looking much cleaner and leaner and all the better for it. Slightly less recently the GR86 has sanded off the worst of the previous model’s flicks and ticks and is looking more mature in an attempt to broaden its appeal and garnish more sales.

 

Sidebyside

Let’s Talk Prius Design History

Speaking of sales, the Prius has been crushing it in the U.S. since its introduction to the market in 2001. For a while it was the only hybrid on sale, which in terms of its image became something of a double edged sword. Buying and driving a Prius came to be seen as vehicular virtue signaling whatever the owners intentions actually were, its aero shape flattened under the weight of political baggage it was carrying around. These days you can get hybrids in a variety of car types – they’re no longer a novelty and a weirdly shaped Toyota isn’t the only game in town.

Comparo1

 

The first generation Prius was as generic a Japanese four-door sedan as was possible. Its nondescript vanilla exteriors with oddly high proportions hid what was then bleeding edge powertrain technology. Then in 2003 came the clothes iron-shaped second generation that propelled the Prius into the mainstream conversation as a car for the ecologically conscious (or for those who wanted to be seen as green). With almost a single unbroken line running from nose to truncated tail, the Prius placed aero efficiency front and center of the design language. The headlights pulled two thirds of the way up the stubby hood only added to the effect of it looking like a domestic appliance.

Comparo2

 

The third gen introduced in 2010 (which became the unofficial car of all Uber drivers in the Greater London area due to its ability to swerve the Congestion Charge — see above on the left) sharpened up some of the previous model’s flabbiness, introducing crisper feature lines and a more shapely headlight graphic, but kept the same aero theme with the cut off rear. Finally the outgoing fourth gen (above on the right) was a car for the terminally attention-deprived, dreamt up by the Toyota designers after a sake and manga bender to end all benders. Saddled with crazy lines to nowhere, a furious front visage and possibly the worst tail lights I’ve ever had the misfortune to look at, there was no mistaking it for anything else on the road. A riot of clashing shapes and angles that collided and bounced off each other, Chris Bangle described it as a car designed to appeal to children so their parents would buy it.

So we have a car that was once a pioneer, now finding itself beset on all sides by competitors from without and within, and saddled fairly or unfairly with a reputation of being bought for what it says, rather than what it does. How to shed this baggage? Take a hard swerve into desirability and come up with a new one that really, honestly looks very decent indeed. [Editor’s Note: That is the most British sentence I’ve read in months. -DT]. 

Let’s Dig Into The New Design

Side Callouts

Firstly, Toyota have yanked the header rail (the top of the windshield) back. Way back. It’s now at about the halfway point of the door, and the transition from A pillar to cant-rail is virtually indeterminate. It’s a neat trick – if you look at the side view you can see volume has been added back into the hood on the center line (or Y-zero as we say in the biz). This means it has both a proper demarcation between hood (helped by a slight inset of the base of the glass) and windshield but keeps a single, much more raked unbroken line running from the fender all the way across the DLO (daylight opening — window) and down to the C-pillar. The high point of the roofline is over the rear passenger compartment, which is really bold because it gives the side profile a wedge shape, and it’s also very clever because the battery pack is under the rear seat meaning it’d be tough to lower the rear passengers H Point (it’s worth noting that, overall, the new model is about 2” lower than the old one).

As you know I’m obsessed with wheels, and it looks like my peers in the Toyota studio won a battle here. Standard now is a 19” rim package but notice how the wheel arch edge maintains an almost constant offset to the tire, to the extent it wraps back under as it descends from the centerline of the wheel, when normal practice is to drop that edge down vertically or even flare it out a little away from the tire. Toyota has apparently done this to minimize the aero turbulence coming from the wheel arch area. Although 19’s might seem excessive on such an aero-driven car, having bigger but narrower wheels maintains the contact patch size while allowing a narrower cross section. The BMW i3 pulled this exact same move.

Comparo3

We’ve still got the trademark cut off tail, but it’s much less abrupt now and more smoothly integrated into the shape of the rear three quarters. A gentle flaring of the sheet metal over the rear wheels adds a little more of a coupe style, and the way the surface of the tailgate wraps over into the bodyside above the back wheels and provides a nice home for now more sophisticated full width taillights is really considered.

What’s going on with what looks like the central reversing light, I’m not sure. It’s in some rear images but not others, which means either a late pre-production change or it’s a legislative thing [Editor’s Note: Maybe it’s the rear fog light required in Europe? -DT]. Again, lighting is a specialist area which I’m not an expert on, but it does look like there are small clear sections in the lower rear reflector/fog clusters so until we get more press images or look at the actual car we won’t know for sure (there’s very view images in the media pack, which is odd for such a big release).

Front Callouts

 

Speaking of lights, yeah the front light graphic looks to be stolen from the Ferrari SF90 (but if you’re gonna steal, do it from the best?) [Editor’s Note: Do we really think the Prius stole design queues from Ferrari? -DT]. What I like here though is the way the black horizontal infill panel between the front lights gives Toyota a neat hiding place for what is probably the Active Cruise sensor.

Being a designer means nit picking is my middle name, and I do have a couple. Well, really only one as the other is more of a pet-hate. It’s not a case of being critical for the sake of it – give me (or any other professional) an hour or two with a real car and we’ll show you where the compromises are. The creative process is never done, and there’s always something you know could have been better. In the case of the new Prius, it’s the door mirrors.

Mirrormess

 

These days you have essentially two ways of mounting the mirrors. Either on a vertical stem mounted on the door skin, or on a horizontal stem that attaches to a sail panel – a black triangular trim piece in the corner of the DLO where it meets the A-pillar. The door skin method is more straight forward, but requires a certain amount of profile in the metal. Because the doors are pretty flat where the mirror needs to be mounted, Toyota have opted for the latter method. The base of the A-pillar is has been pulled so far forward (to get that laid back rake) the mirror itself needs to be positioned further rearwards in relation to the door glass. So if you did fit a sail panel  it would be huge and create a massive blind spot. So they’ve made a sail panel that’s quarter height – which means to avoid an unfortunate step when the side glass is lowered they’ve split the glazing, giving a smaller window opening.

I think this part is a bit of a mess, and really the only way around it would be to bring the lowest point of the DLO graphic down, to make room to mount the base of the mirror stem entirely within that dip. This would have been perhaps too big of a change, and remember the body-in-white is one of the first things to be signed off, so there’s usually not much scope for altering it once the early design gateways are passed. I thought maybe the mirrors were shared with another model (as this can sometime force compromise in this area) but this doesn’t appear to be the case, so the mirror stem itself could have adopted a more helpful shape in getting the mirror glass into the right position. Nearly every other Toyota has door skin mounted mirrors, so I suspect it was done on cost grounds or more likely, they ran out of time.

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Regular readers will know one of my biggest pet-hates is black wheels. One of my other pet-hates is hidden rear door handles. Why do they cause me to spit out my espresso in a rage? Because they’re totally dishonest and fooling no one. There’s a bloody great shut line there – nobody with eyes is ever going to mistake this for a two door car, so why do it? Good design is nothing if not honest, and this is some Discovery 5-offset-tailgate level of design treachery.

Comparo4

The most beautiful modern European sedan ever made, the Alfa Romeo 156 had gorgeous delicate chrome push button handles on the front doors. They were truly a tactile and visual work of art. On the rear doors? Cheap and nasty pull flaps hidden in the rear DLO trim. It drove me nuts, but it didn’t quite stop me from owning one.

So even if it’s a bit of a pet-hate, it definitely doesn’t ruin the new Prius, which actually looks great.

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100 Responses

  1. The rear in the photos looks like the Flehmen response on a deer.

    Could rear door handles hidden like that also be trying to emulate rear air intakes?
    I know for Ford they’ve stopped doing 2nd row touch entry because their family feud survey said people don’t go into the rear doors. So if you buy a 4 door but generally use only driver door, you’re less annoyed at the positioning of the rear ones.

    I do also like the rearward peak. I assume the front seats have enough recline that even as a long torso person I won’t hit my head, the fact that 2nd row has dropping roofline on a lot of cars is really annoying if you have tall other people you may cart around. Probably best looking side profile on a Prius yet.

    1. I think this is a reasonably astute observation, but design doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s always a reflection of context, circumstance, tastes, history, technology and a hundred other things.

      A lot of Chinese design is a just a grab bag of generic visual features and meaningless branding. I feel the Prius is much better than that.

  2. To the the point analysis and agree with most of it and made me aware of some stuff I’ve never thought about. I’m curios though, about those “sail panels”. Those black panels is a bit of a pet hate for me on a lot of car designs, as it seems their only function is to create a harmonic and coherent DLO, and nothing else. The Prius also has an additional black plate to round off the DLO by the rear door handle. It kinda feels a bit …lazy? As if the engineers and designers couldn’t quite solve the puzzle and had to fill in some blanks. The Mercedes EQS has a MASSIVE sail panel, the largest one I’ve seen since the last gen Ford Focus, and it just looks sooo cheap. I’m I missing something here?

    1. Manufacturers rarely give the front and rear DLO bits the attention they need. I always wondered if a lux automaker could just put tinted glass inserts in those corners to maintain continuity with the rest of the glass openings, even if no light passed through. Or some nice piano black trim with some obscene anti-scratch coating, since it’s not actually a window. But for ages, there’s been unpainted black trim, or some crappy bit with the wrong texture that sticks out like a sore thumb. And for God’s sake, the back window on the 2017 Camry is a crime. There’s solutions that were never bothered with.

      1. It is to harmonise the DLO graphic, like everything it can be done well or shittily and the Camry is particularly egregious.

        The problem you have is if you start trying to introduce glass you give yourself a whole load of other issues. Weight, cost, sealing, packaging and potential impact on the size of the door glass (you may need to make room for a small quarter light by moving the glazing split rearwards).

        Sail panels done well shouldn’t be noticed.

      1. The tighter door packaging bit touched on a random thought that meanders through my grey matter occasionally. Manual crank windows are long gone from the majority of vehicles great and small. Is the door packaging getting so tight that they are not worth the hassle?

        1. Yes and no. From a packaging point of view there’s not a lot of difference in the space required (both need the same regulator and a mechanism) but obviously electric gives you much more freedom for switch placement, whereas a crank needs to be on a flat surface and in a certain position.

  3. The one thing I want to know as a 3rd gen Prius owner, what is it like to drive around with other people? Currently I’m used to getting cut off, horn blared at, tailgating, high beams flicked at no matter what speed I’m driving. Going 45 on a 35 street? Someone’s on you honking to pull over. Going 80 on a 65 freeway? Someone is cutting you off so they can go slower in front of you. Same commute in any other vehicle and I don’t get any of those same issues.

  4. I think the offset plate is the greatest thing about the design of the Discovery. I want one just because its got the strange offset. The earlier one even more so because it had the asymmetrical rear window to go along with the offset

  5. This may be a scalding hot take here, but I actually like a lot of what Toyota has done styling-wise over the past few years. However, they also have a habit of periodically releasing some hideous monstrosities like the Mirai and its offspring the 4th gen Prius.

  6. The rear H-point isn’t at that peak… the peak would help with the appearance of head room since it’s in front of your eye point, but your head is WAY back in the header for the hatch. On most vehicles short of minivans the H-point is close to where the edge of the door is.

    That being said – that car is so much better looking than the previous! It will be interesting if they get increased sales, or it will be a case of the right car at the wrong time with people who would be efficiency inclined going for the onslaught of new electric CUVs coming out instead.

    1. I have a 2012 Prius v (gen 3) and it has blind spots, yes.
      What I’ve done (after one day I slept funny and woke up with neck pain bad enough to warrant an urgent care trip) was finally order a pair of narrow blind spot mirrors. They have a slight curve and take up roughly 1/6th of the mirror’s real estate, but I have no blind spots now. Absolutely fantastic design.
      I don’t get why they’re not standard or why regular mirrors wouldn’t have a slight curve (like a piece of paper starting to fold on itself, not a full circular convex mirror). The curve is pronounced enough to provide broad coverage, but gentle enough that distances aren’t so distorted that they’re hard to judge.
      It makes me think of why I prefer backup sensors to backup cameras–the important thing isn’t “what is behind me?” it’s knowing that something is behind you *at all* and how far it is. I think the sensor provides more useful information.

      1. My 2017 Focus ST has the curved pieces in the mirrors. First car I’ve owned to come with them and it is perfectly designed. Blends well and works even better. A must have for every vehicle I believe.

  7. It feels odd that I used to make fun of and hate the Prius, and now I’m generally a bit excited. My biggest complaint now is that there are 19″ wheels. As someone that lives in a city, I know I’ll eventually rub a curb, and live in a frozen hellhole that has potholes galore… so I’m wonder what the smallest wheel I can fit on this thing will be.

    1. I totally agree. I owned a 3rd gen Prius and it was terrible. I really hope the new one drives well and is quiet enough at speed. I think I read somewhere that the LE and Prime SE have 17″ wheels, but they have wheel covers.

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