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When talking hybrid vehicles, the first name that usually comes to mind is Prius.

The Honda Insight actually arrived in Canada first – both in 2000 – but Prius is top of mind when people think about hybrids, which use a combination of internal combustion and electric power to power a car.

At a time of rising oil prices and growing concern about climate change, Prius was embraced by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Canada's David Suzuki, cementing its status among the environmentally conscious.

However, with Toyota set to roll its fourth-generation 2016 Prius into dealer showrooms this spring, lower fuel prices and burgeoning sales of large sport-utility vehicles and crossovers have hurt hybrid sales.

Those peaked in Canada at about 25,000 vehicles in 2012, says auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers. Despite record 2015 car and light truck sales, hybrids declined for the second straight year.

"Sales of battery-electric vehicles increased slightly but sales of hybrid electric vehicles declined, so sales of electrified vehicles actually went down, not up," DesRosier wrote in a recent commentary.

"Top to bottom in our industry, the (auto makers) are offering more fuel-efficient vehicles, but they can't make consumers buy them."

Toyota actually bucked the slide. It sold 11,551 Prius, hybrid Camry sedan and Highlander hybrid crossover models last year, up 2.6 per cent. Lexus added 2,078.

Sales of its three Prius models, 7,150, reflected a 2.7 per cent rise. But it took 9 per cent increases in sales of the Prius c subcompact and Prius v wagon to offset a 14 per cent drop in Prius sedan purchases.

Some of that decline might be attributed to the expectation of an all-new Prius but Toyota recognizes its success as the go-to eco-friendly, fuel-sipping ride can also limit its broader appeal. Hybrid sales mirror the rise and fall of fuel prices, says Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada vice-president.

"It's important for us to break that psychology," he says.

Toyota is not abandoning Prius's core attributes, says Jamie Humphries, Toyota Canada marketing director. But it wants to reach a larger group of buyers who want a practical, stylish family car, one they can form an emotional bond with and who see themselves as youthful, energetic and optimistic.

"This is a large group and it's not defined by age," he says.

Most people buy cars, says Beatty, because they believe it meets their practical needs and emotional desires, not for altruistic reasons.

The 2016 Prius goes some way to achieving that goal while also embodying Toyota's mission for it as a platform for new technology.

While its Hybrid Synergy Drive system produces the same 121 horsepower as the previous generation, a number of power-train components have been lightened. Higher trim levels get a smaller lithium-ion battery that fits under the rear seat instead of the cargo area, where the carryover nickel-metal hydride battery goes, improving cargo space.

The Prius is the first to use Toyota's New Global Architecture, which takes a more integrated approach to developing body and drive components that can be used on different models. Toyota Canada engineer Terrence Chu said the system has produced a body that's 60 per cent more rigid and allowed for improved design of its rear suspension.

A day spent driving challenging mountain lanes near Vancouver revealed the Prius feels more confident than previous models. The new car has been lowered, reducing its centre of gravity, and it has a new independent rear suspension, neither of which hurt its ride comfort. The electric power steering was accurate, though lacking in real road feel.

The combination of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and two electric-drive motors mate seamlessly to the continuously-variable transmission, erasing the kind of rubber-band effect often seen with CVTs in non-hybrid applications.

Driver's sightlines are excellent thanks to the Prius's low nose. The interior is well finished and comfortable, the dash dominated by a large infotainment screen in the centre stack and two smaller ones above housing instrument readouts slightly offset from the driver.

Safety systems on the Prius have evolved steadily, from a couple of front airbags in the original to a full suite of standard and optional electronic aids for 2016. Toyota Safety Sense includes pedestrian pre-collision detection, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control that can operate in stop-and-go traffic, lane departure warning and steering assist. It will become standard equipment in 2017.

The base Prius starts at $25,995, which Toyota says is more than $300 lower than the 2015 model. For $590 more, Toyota Safety Sense and heated seats are included.

The Prius Touring starts at $29,330, while the Technology trim level will be $28,730. Add $3,260 for the Advanced Package that includes blind-spot and cross-traffic monitoring, Intelligent Parking Assist and head-up display, and you're at about $32,000.

Beatty said Toyota plans eventually to have a hybrid in every model line – it rolled out a 2016 RAV4 version for 2016 – allowing Prius to evolve as a platform to introduce new technologies.

No mistake, eco-friendliness remains a part of Prius's makeup but "it won't be wrapped in green leaves," Beatty says.

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