While this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit fe­atured many notable concept and production vehicle world debuts, the 2010 Toyota Prius garnered a considerable amount of media attention. Touting an improved 50 ­mpg rating, up from the previous iteration’s 46 mpg rating, Toyota continues to stake its reputation as an industry innovator on the economical gasoline-electric hybrid. And really, why not?

With more than 1 million units sold in 44 countries, Toyota would be hard pressed to reinvent the success of its best-selling hybrid. That is precisely why the third-generation Prius features subtle exterior re­styling backed by a surplus of technological fine-tuning. Toyota believes the silhouette of the vehicle is iconic, something they would be foolish to tamper with. So instead, the focus was directed at content and, of course, major sales growth.

“The features and performance of the new midsize Prius that you’ll see in a few moments are superior to anything we have ever built,” said Bob Carter, Toyota Division Group Vice President and General Manager, before the reveal. “And along with building a better car, we will make it available in more places. We plan to sell this new Prius in 80 countries worldwide, nearly twice as many as today. Depending on market conditions, our global sales objective will be about 400,000 units per year by 2010. That will put Prius near the top of our best-selling vehicles around the world along with Camry and Corolla.”

To appeal to a larger base of prospective drivers, and no doubt cement its reputation as a leader in hybrid-vehicle technology, Toyota has loaded the 2010 Prius with a host of new features.

For starters, the powertrain has been reworked to include a larger displacement 1.8-L four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. Running on the Atkinson cycle, the engine produces 98 hp (73 kW) at 5200 rpm with 105 lb·ft (142 N·m) of torque. In addition, use of an electric water pump and a new exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system are engineered to enhance fuel economy. The 1.8-L engine features reduced maintenance requirements and provides better performance, with the Prius capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) from rest in 9.8 s, according to Toyota.

Though the new Prius has the same wheelbase as the current generation, it features an all-new platform. Overall length is slightly increased by 0.6 in (15 mm), partly a result of moving the front cowl forward. The suspension consists of front struts and a rear intermediate beam design, as before, but handling stability has been upgraded by improving the stabilizer layout, raising the caster angle, and tuning the bushing characteristics. Disc brakes are used on all four corners, replacing the front disc/rear drum brakes currently used.

Rounding out the package are a host of added technologies: Intelligent Parking Assist, like that available on the Lexus LS460; a standard moonroof with solar panels that power a separate ventilation system; Power, Eco, and EV driving modes; and steering-wheel touch controls that display on the instrument panel. The radar-based dynamic cruise control system features lane-departure warning. A backup monitor, voice-activated navigation system, and Safety Connect, Toyota’s version of OnStar, are also available.

Matthew Newton SAE