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The Toyota Prius is an icon – the vehicle has totaled over 3.5 million sales in 18 years, making it the world’s most popular hybrid car. The fourth-generation Prius that Toyota just unveiled in Las Vegas marks an evolutionary leap for the hybrid that started it all.

Up until now, the Prius has been an efficient, practical, and fairly sedate choice for budget-conscious car buyers. Toyota’s next-gen hybrid seeks to get hearts racing with sportier styling, head-turning design elements, and improved performance. Toyota amped up the Prius’ exterior with a more muscular, defined silhouette inspired by “a runner in the starting blocks” and new energy-efficient LED headlights set at an aggressive tilt. The front fascia is reminiscent of the Toyota’s futuristic Mirai hydrogen car.

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The 2016 Prius has a double-wishbone suspension and an elongated stance that’s 2.4 inches longer, .6 inches wider, and .8 inches lower than the 2015 Prius. That translates to a roomier interior and a sunken center of gravity that should improve handling and make the car more fun to drive. Under the hood, an overhauled drivetrain provides 10% better fuel economy – expect to see an EPA combined mpg rating of around 55 mpg. The next-gen Prius is outfitted with smaller, lighter hybrid components, higher energy density batteries, and a new combustion engine with over 40% thermal efficiency.

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The 2016 Prius also marks the launch of Toyota’s “New Global Architecture” – an “integrated development program for power components and vehicle platforms” that will improve resource efficiency as Toyota develops future vehicles down the line. Takeaways from this new design approach include the 2016 Prius’ lower center of gravity and more rigid body, which is more responsive in cornering and stronger in collisions.

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We recently reported on Toyota’s $50 million investment in smart driving technologies. The 2016 Prius will debut with a state-of-the-art package of safety-focused systems including pre-collision braking, lane departure alert, steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control, and automatic high beams. Toyota plans to roll these Safety Sense technologies out across its entire vehicle lineup by the year 2017.

+ Toyota Prius

Photos by Mike Chino for Inhabitat