Still Exciting(?)

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People of a certain age will remember that back in the proverbial day, when September rolled along, new cars were introduced in dealer showrooms. This was always quite an event. The dealerships would cover their windows with sheets of paper as the new sheet metal was rolled in. People truly anticipated seeing what was behind the paper curtain. And on a certain day, at a certain time, the all-new Whatever was unveiled.

Some of this unveiling still remains at auto shows during media days. When the sheet is pulled away from the car or truck the photographers start clicking and flashing. For them, it isn’t about excitement, it is about getting shots for the story—or for the Tweet or Facebook posting, at least early on. Those who are charged with writing the text are often doing a headshake or eye roll at the fact that they’ve had to wait for that. It doesn’t matter what that is; it could be entirely magnificent, but the show is completely lost on them. Now it is a matter, for them, of quickly cranking out some copy in order not to fall too far behind the hundreds of others who are doing the very same thing.

Once, there was excitement related to seeing new cars. Admittedly, there are still cars like Corvettes and Mustangs that still pique interest and anticipation, even among the seen-it-all-before press corps. But by and large, that’s waned, and auto manufacturers don’t have a discernable schedule as to when new cars and trucks will be introduced, as they have different release dates for different vehicles, such that there is almost always something new being introduced by someone.

Which brings me to the world premier event for the 2016 Prius last month—yes, September—in Las Vegas. It was truly a big deal. An event with the pizazz of what one might expect of a vehicle unveiling in Vegas. Showbiz over the top. Uber showbiz. (Although Uber doesn’t roll in Sin City.) Lights, music, a Prius suspended on wires above the rooftop of the Linq hotel.

Toyota put plenty of chips on the table for the 2016 Prius.

The Prius, which came to the U.S. in 2000 as a model year 2001 car (it was available in Japan in 1997), has become synonymous with hybrid. It is the hybrid against which all others are compared. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a hybrid from Hyundai or from Mercedes, from Ford or from BMW, the Prius has to get into the picture, and if it isn’t clearly in the frame, it still has an undeniable presence.

The second-generation Prius launched in 2004. The third-gen came out in 2010. That’s the car that’s still out there. Sure, there have been variants, like the smaller Prius c and the larger Prius v. But pretty much it has been the original compact hatch with what some argue is a distinctive quirky design, as though the vehicle itself can telegraph a message that it is a different kind of car.

What is easy to forget is that the original Prius had an EPA-estimated rating of 45 mpg city/51 mpg highway. And a decade-and-a-half later, those numbers are still highly respectable. In fact, there are small cars out there that don’t even get near to those numbers.

The original Prius was developed at Toyota’s Vehicle Development Center 2. In January 1994, Takeshi Uchiyamada was named project general manager at the center; two years later, he was named chief engineer of Vehicle Development Center 2.

Last August Uchiyamada recalled that in 1995, during the development of the Prius, they couldn’t get the prototype to move for 49 days. He said, “We had no idea what was wrong, so we worked late every night trying to figure it out. We finally got it to move around Christmas time, but it only went 500 meters!”

All those late nights paid off for the corporation, which has sold more than 8 million hybrids (not all of them Prius, but all of them with a huge debt to the Prius) on a global basis. 

And it didn’t work out too badly for Uchiyamada, either, as he was named chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. in June 2013.

The Prius is a car. A fairly successful car that routinely outsells other cars, and in some cases, outsells entire divisions of competitive car companies.

The Prius isn’t the Toyota franchise. That’s still the Camry which, even with sales decreases, is still maintaining its perennial position as the best-selling car in the U.S. And with the shift toward compact crossovers, The RAV 4 is of increasing importance to Toyota.

But Toyota understands that it is worth generating a little excitement—hell, a lot of excitement—over the introduction of a new car. Which is really something other OEMs ought to do to help make more people interested in what the industry has to offer.

I’m not suggesting that they resort to smoke and mirrors when it comes to product.

I am suggesting they do when it comes to making their cars more than just an object.