This year’s New York International Auto Show felt more jam-packed with new car debuts than years past, and that in large part had to do with how many new models Toyota and other manufacturers showed off. Not content with the New York launch of the new 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, Toyota also unveiled a significantly refreshed 2017 Highlander, a nip-and-tucked 2017 Corolla 50th Anniversary Edition, and the de-Scion-ized Toyota 86 sports car. Toyota’s group vice president and general manager Bill Fay was the man responsible for shepherding all four new cars out into the bright lights of the Javits Center, and after their debut, we spent five minutes talking to him about Toyota’s new Prius Prime, Mirai, and some future Toyota product.
Motor Trend: The new Prius Prime represents a drastic departure from the old Prius/Prius Plug-In Hybrid relationship. What was the rationale for making the Prius Prime its own unique product with its own look inside and out versus just a plug-in version of the new Prius?
Bill Fay: I think it’s nice to see we’re able to sell and market a car that has quite a bit of [visual] differentiation; I think that’s going to allow us to really take the Prius Prime and separate it a bit from Prius. The initial feedback has been much more positive than anything—although it is a bit polarizing.
We all in the industry still have some work to do in order to make the mainstream customer be able to differentiate a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and an electric vehicle from each other. That becomes our continued biggest challenge, but it’s an industry challenge. It’s not just a Toyota challenge. I think within that to be able to have some styling that differentiates the hybrid and the plug-in, and maybe a different name now with Prius Prime, I think that will help us accomplish some of that differentiation.
MT: How has Toyota dealt with the challenge of helping customers understand the differences between hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles?
BF: Even within Zero Emission Vehicle states, our research on Prius Prime shows there’s a gap between the states in the recognition of those three types of vehicles and the benefits state by state. As we mentioned, we’re going to sell the plug-in Prius Prime in all 50 states, which we’re excited to do, but we’re going to do it very carefully. That education is going to have to be ramped up more. We’re going to have to have to try to accomplish all that very targeted and efficiently, and we’ll have to do a lot of it online and through creative ways to help customers understand the differences and benefits of each.
MT: There’s a lot of talk about the Prius Prime’s four-passenger seating configuration. Why go for four seats when you’ve got the room for five?
BF: You know, our research indicates that [the fifth seat] wasn’t a real big purchase reason. It’s nice to have, but I think the overall package of the Prius Prime fits the person that’s going to buy that car. I don’t think we’re going to lose much business at all because it’s a four-seater, and like everything else, once we start selling it and we get some customer feedback, we can always make some adjustments if needed. I think the real feedback we got is there’s not a lot of five-passenger activity going on in those vehicles, so I think the overall package is very efficient, and it’s efficient in the way it was set up for four passengers.
MT: Did the fact that General Motors reached the opposite conclusion with the Chevrolet Volt, adding a fifth seat to the new generation, give you any pause?
BF: I think we look at all that stuff, but a lot of the info we got showed that it was not going to be one of the top purchase considerations for the vehicle, so we decided to put our attention toward some of the things that will be and tried to make those class-leading.
MT: One of the biggest purchase considerations for the Chevrolet Volt has been its electric-only range, which is now at 53 miles with the new generation. Why not try to match the Volt’s range instead of going with a smaller battery and 22 miles of estimated range?
BF: I think the company took all those key purchase considerations and decided to try and find the right balance so that we can have a compelling story for customers. It’s the 120 mpg-e. It’s the overall range that improves almost 100 (from the Prius Plug-In) into the 630 range on a full tank of fuel. It’s the 22 (miles of range). It’s the time that it takes to charge a vehicle, so we’re going to be charged from a normal outlet faster than Volt or, I think, anything else on the market. So I think there’s several key points, and if you just focus in on that electric range, we’re a bit short. But I think if you look at the overall package, I think we have a really compelling story and something that I think overall will really appeal to customers.
MT: Speaking of compelling story, how has the hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai done thus far?
BF: The numbers are slow, but that’s what we anticipated. If anything, in California we’ve gotten a little bit out ahead of the infrastructure, so we’re trying to make sure we take a half a step back, work a little bit harder with our business partners that are out working on the infrastructure with, and see if we can’t get the stations that are planned to come up in the next six months on schedule and the ones that are already online to get their reliability to improve a little bit from what it’s been. I think it’s been pretty much in line with what we expected, though the infrastructure has maybe taken a tad longer than what we thought, but as you look at that, I don’t know that that’s a big surprise.
MT: What are customers saying about the car?
BF: Customer feedback has been extremely positive on the car, the technology, and the drivability—a lot of the key reasons they buy it. There’s still some frustrations about stations, mainly locations and [sometimes those stations are down], but most of the challenges at this point are still kind of connecting the infrastructure to refuel the product.
MT: Although a gasoline-free Toyota lineup by 2050 has garnered attention, so has the new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA). Will that eventually underpin the whole Toyota lineup?
BF: Everything moves to the new global architecture over time. Cars will essentially happen before we roll them over to trucks. It will happen over the next several years, and we’re excited to slowly roll those out and incorporate those benefits to what we do from a sales and marketing standpoint.
MT: The Toyota C-HR subcompact crossover will be the next vehicle in the U.S. to ride on TNGA. Does a small crossover present any unique challenges for this market?
BF: I think it’s going to take learning from RAV4 and the growth of that segment [to be successful] because it’s so dynamic and growing so fast that it’s pulling some of those older buyers, it’s pulling from millennials, and it’s pulling from all parts of the market. As you finalize the development of a product that’s going to be offered in the lineup right below (RAV4), I think you’ve got to take into account some of the purchase considerations that people are buying small sport utilities for. [We need to] make sure they’re incorporated into C-HR and be able to put together a compelling package so that you have all the benefits of those sport utilities, but you have enough utility in them for a smaller version of what RAV4 offers. We think we have a nice mix of a quirky and compelling look [with C-HR] and a good efficient package inside, so I think we’ll deliver a pretty good product about a year from now.