Toyota, once the world's most complacent auto maker has awoken, and this surely is troubling news for the rest of the big car companies.
Latest sign: the all-new Prius hybrid just unveiled in Las Vegas. For starters, the new Prius look is less bare-bones taxicab, more athletic runabout. A new platform with a rear double wishbone suspension promises handling that should end the unpleasant ride of the current model and might even interest commuters who care just a little about driving. The hybrid system is lighter and more efficient and the fuel efficiency, we're told, is taking a huge leap.
The new Prius matters so much because it's Toyota's flagship car – and without question the most important car of the last 25 years. The Prius not only legitimized gasoline-electric hybrids, it made them mainstream. This is the car that turned Toyota into a "green" automotive icon. In two decades, Toyota has sold more than eight million hybrids, with the largest number of them being the Prius.
The fourth-generation one signals that Toyota is not giving up the green automotive space carved out by the Prius. Under that new skin is Toyota's New Global Architecture (TNGA).
In the wake of years of recall woes, safety issues and a plea bargain with the U.S. Justice Department for lying to the public, Toyota has reinvented itself. The centerpiece of that effort is TGNA. Toyota's rivals will be worried because TGNA is an entirely new way for Toyota to design and build new models – faster, with less cost and greater efficiency.
Under TGNA, parts modules will become commonplace and parts will be standardized across models and lines like never before. Power trains and vehicle platforms are becoming fully integrated. Vehicle development is being grouped into like-models that can share parts, power trains or power train components. Development resources should be cut by 20 per cent if it all works.
So what will future Toyotas look like? They'll be lower, lighter and more entertaining to drive. Toyota says the overall efficiency of future hybrid system will increase by 15 per cent and the overall efficiency of its power trains across the line will jump by a whopping 25 per cent. Hybrid systems will use smaller batteries and get new electric motors and inverters.
Toyota says you'll like driving its new models, rather than finding it a chore, because a re-think of body structure engineering will improve overall body rigidity by as much as 30-65 per cent. This new Prius is the first of the new vehicles using this changed approach to making cars and light trucks. Look for entirely new platforms for mid-size front-drive vehicles first, then front-drive compacts and rear-drive vehicles. Toyota has said that by 2020, half its vehicles will be riding on these new platforms.
So going forward, when Toyota claims a model is "new," it will be really new from the inside out. That's a big change. For the past two decades, most of Toyota's "new" models were more about cosmetic updates than real engineering breakthroughs – the first-generation Prius a notable exception. No more.
Yes, the Volkswagen Group passed Toyota for the first half of the year to become the world' biggest auto maker. Yes, Toyota's shares have been in the doldrums for the past year and the Takata air bag scandal has yet to play out, which will have an impact on Toyota is some way.
But in the big picture, Toyota is on the move and has both the resources and the willing leadership needed to be bold. With $40 billion (U.S.) in cash on hand and the ability to raise billions more if need be, Toyota is a small bank unto itself. That sort of money gives Toyota the freedom to pursue new product initiatives and future partnerships.
Partnerships? We've seen one successful one already – the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S twins. A partnership with Mazda will see Scion get a version of the Mazda2 called the Scion iA. Toyota is partnering with BMW on a new roadster platform that will likely yield a next-generation Z4 and Supra.
Also, don't overlook Toyota's commitment to the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle which will debut in selected markets in October. Toyota would like the Mirai to do for the company what the Prius did before it. And Toyota has hinted at a solution to the hydrogen refueling infrastructure problem that has plagued hydrogen cars forever: home storage that allows electricity to be stored in the form of hydrogen. And yes, as I noted, Toyota has the money all by itself to make this happen, if that's the gamble this auto maker wants to play.
In the meantime, however, the current Toyota product line is getting some attention. There's a new midsize pickup, the Tacoma, coming to dealerships, and the RX, the most important model at Lexus the luxury brand will arrive in redesigned form this November.
So while the next-generation Prius is the most visible sign of an energized Toyota, it is by far not the only one.
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