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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.