It’s not often that a single automotive nameplate becomes virtually synonymous with a powertrain technology. Yet over the course of almost two decades, that’s exactly what has happened with the Toyota Prius. When you think hybrid electric, Prius is likely the first and probably only name that comes to mind. Late 2015 brought us an all-new fourth-generation Prius with some of the most substantial changes to date and I finally got an opportunity to drive it recently.
The idea of the off-road vehicle is by no means new, but it used to be that people that wanted to go bouncing around in sand dunes, crawling through canyons or racing through the desert would basically have to build their own. Aside from the Jeep Wrangler and its predecessors, almost no factory-built truck had real serious off-road capability. However, in the past decade we’ve seen automakers go from building hot-rod trucks like the Chevy Syclone, Ford F-150 Lightning and Dodge Ram SRT-10 to more serious off-roaders like the F-150 SVT Raptor and this Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road.
Compared to the rest of the world, the American automotive market is an anomaly in ways. No where else will you find fullsize pickup trucks selling in such enormous numbers with the big trucks from Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler being the perennial best-sellers for years on end. Move beyond our borders however, and so-called C-segment or compact cars dominate the market. For nearly five decades one of the continuous top-sellers in that space has been the Toyota Corolla in all its different flavors. While Corolla buyers elsewhere get to choose from a variety of body styles, Americans are limited to a four-door sedan unless they opt for the related Scion iM hatchback.
The American light vehicle market is a unique beast in the world. Nowhere else on the planet will you find so many full-size pickup trucks in use and representing such a large proportion of total vehicle sales. Through October, 2015, Americans bought 1.78 million fullsize trucks, 12.3 percent of the year-to-date total. It’s also the only market segment where the three Detroit based automakers have remained utterly dominant despite challenges from Japan. As the world’s largest automaker, Toyota looked at the profit margins that Ford, GM and Chrysler were pulling in on those trucks and it’s been trying to capture a piece of that pie for more than two decades with surprisingly limited success. In 2013, Toyota gave the Tundra pickup a major makeover and it’s better than ever – but is it good enough?
Don’t get me wrong, the Scion FR-S is by no means slow, but in comparison to a Mustang GT, Camaro SS, Challenger Hellcat or Tesla Model S, it has no hope of keeping up. But I have absolutely no issue with that. In fact, that is precisely what makes this car so damn appealing. At 200 hp, the FR-S has more than enough grunt to get around and have tons of fun without resorting to the type of antisocial behavior that’s likely to get you thrown behind behind bars or worse.
Cars hold a strange place in our lives. For most people, they are the second most expensive purchase they will make after a house. Many of us depend on them for personal mobility in modern life. But in many ways, cars are frequently the least rational big-ticket purchase we’ll make. If we were at all rational in choosing cars, we’d all be driving either a Prius or a minivan. There would be no SUVs or sports cars and only contractors would drive pickup trucks. But we are irrational creatures that buy cars for emotional reasons; the way they appeal to our eyes when we see them, the thrill we get from the roar of the engine, the rush we get from the acceleration.
In my recent review of the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX car audio receiver with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, I lamented the fact that Pioneer was only offer the smartphone interfaces in its more high-end receivers. At $700, the 4100NEX is the most affordable receiver with this capability and includes a DVD drive and motorized face plate. It also has a tiny row of controls along the bottom edge for volume and mode selection.
I suggested that for people that want to use a smartphone interface, they are less likely to actually use disks or other media and Pioneer should offer a more basic unit with a fixed screen (not to mention a better display than the 4100NEX) and no disk drive.
It turns out they make just such a receiver. It even has a rotary volume knob! The problem is that consumers can’t actually buy this receiver. It’s found in the Scion FR-S that I’m driving this week. Of course Toyota isn’t yet supporting Android or Carplay so this unit doesn’t have that capability. However, if Pioneer would sell this head unit as a standalone with Android and Carplay for $200-250 I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it and I’d even buy one myself.
Late last night in Las Vegas, Toyota revealed the new fourth-generation of the world’s best selling hybrid, the Prius. Eighteen years after the debut of the original, the Prius has become an automotive icon with a distinctive look that has become synonymous with battery-assisted cars. Images of the of the new Prius have been leaking out for weeks and by time Toyota revealed the car it was no longer a surprise. All that was really left to reveal were the technical details, but unfortunately those have been kept to a bare minimum other than the news that it will offer a 10 percent boost in fuel efficiency.
Toyota will officially unveil the all-new fourth-generation Prius at midnight EDT on September 9. Watch here
At a press conference in Palo Alto, California today, Toyota announced a new collaborative research program that will focus on development of artificial intelligence and automation control systems. Under the auspices of Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC), the $50 million development program will pull in researchers from Toyota, Stanford University and MIT to help develop the systems that will be required to power increasingly autonomous cars. The effort will be led by Dr. Gill Pratt who is joining Toyota as an executive technical advisor. Pratt previously served as the program manager for the DARPA robotics challenge which brought the world the “big dog” robot from Boston Dynamics.
Yet another automotive proving ground opened in Ann Arbor, Mich. today, but the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) is quite different from existing tracks. There is no shortage of automotive test tracks scattered around southeast Michigan mostly operated by automakers and larger suppliers that do everything from salt baths to high-speed stability to running over pounding potholes. These facilities tend to be highly secured facilities where outsiders are rarely welcome. Ford engineers don’t get to hang out at GM’s Milford Proving Ground and GM people are persona non-grata in Dearborn. At MTC Mcity course, all of these engineers will have a place where they can come together and collaborate along with researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).