New Prius officially unveiled in Las Vegas (images & video)

The rumors and spy shots have been swirling for weeks now, but the new Prius was officially unveiled in Las Vegas on September 9. This is the fourth generation for this car, which began life as a rather dowdy 4 door sedan based on the insipid Echo before Toyota upped its game and gave the car the “spaceship” body it is known for. But the car has never been a joy to drive.

As expected, based on the spy shots we have seen, the new body style is similar to the existing car but with a lot more visual excitement, particularly at the rear. The roof slopes more radically than before and seems to “float” at the back. Toyota has chosen to paint the rear roof pillars black, which makes them blend in with the tinted windows surrounding them.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda asked for a more exciting design and he got his wish, especially when the car is painted Hypersonic Red, a new color choice this year. He also asked for better handling. We can’t say if that wish came true, but the new car rides on an all new suspension said to offer drivers more feel for the road. The car also has a lower center of gravity to promote better ride dynamics.

The Prius has always been about fuel economy. Toyota proudly says the new car is “the highest mileage car you can buy without a plug.” The new car is lighter in every aspect. Every part of its hybrid powertrain has been massaged to improve efficiency and reduce weight. It has a larger battery so the electric motor can do more of the work in urban driving. The reworked gasoline engine can be as much as 40% efficient in some driving situations, which is far superior to most engines today.

While official numbers haven’t been released yet, Toyota says we can expect the new car to have 10% better fuel economy. The current car is rated 50 mpg combined, so expect the new car to squeeze 55 miles or more out of a gallon of gasoline overall. Toyota supposedly has an Eco Mode version of the new Prius in the works that will be rated at 60 mpg.

Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive has now been employed in more than 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The Prius itself has sold more than 4 million units worldwide, so this is an important car for Toyota. Even though gas prices are the lowest they have been in a decade, that situation can’t and won’t last forever. When prices start creeping back up, the 4th generation Prius may seem like the best idea since ice cream to value conscious shoppers.