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Toyota Prius 2010: Better Mileage, Bottoming Sales?

Ask Toyota Prius owners what their average miles per gallon is and the answer you're likely to get is "50." Rounding is commonplace. The math can be fuzzy. But the 2010 model Prius makes the figure official.

Ask Toyota Prius owners what their average miles per gallon is and the answer you're likely to get is "50." Rounding is commonplace. The math can be fuzzy. But the 2010 model Prius makes the figure official.The 2010 gas/electric hybrid's combined EPA estimated fuel economy rating is 50 mpg, putting the third-generation Prius at the top of the retail vehicle mpg heap, Toyota announced Monday.

The 2010 Prius will be the highest-mileage retail vehicle in the United States -- 9% more fuel efficient than the current model's 46 mpg rating and 22% better than the first-generation engine (41 mpg).

What's really interesting is that this car sports a bigger engine than its predecessor. The old 1.5-liter engine has been replaced with a 1.8-liter engine. Or as the comment I saw on a gearhead blog this morning put it: "1.8L of fury vs. 1.5L for the current model. This equates to 17% more fury."

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the larger engine actually helps improve highway mileage. By making more torque, the new engine can run at lower average rpm on the highway. When operating at lower rpm, the new engine uses less fuel. Mileage is especially improved in cold-start conditions and at higher speeds," explains Toyota in a statement.

It's not that the first two generations of the Prius can't or haven't achieved miles per gallon of 50 and even beyond. My husband drives a 2007 Prius and has clocked 50+ mpg many times without resorting to any extreme hypermiling techniques. But conditions have to be just so (dry roads, tires properly inflated) and so on. The truth is, his long-term mpg hovers around 46 or 47, just as the sticker promised.

The new Prius hits showrooms in April or May and Toyota has optimistically announced it expects to sell 100,000 of them in the remaining months of 2009, a company executive told the Detroit News Monday.

The big question for Toyota is whether 50 mpg is enough to get customers to pony up for a new car in 2010. With paychecks disappearing and auto sales consequently tanking, the question might be moot. If there's no money in the family budget for a car payment, even 200 mpg isn't going to turn shoppers into buyers.

How bad are sales right now? "December's Prius sales were down almost 50% from July, when both gas prices and demand for hybrids were soaring," according to Toyota car sales in general were down 29% from January 2008 to January 2009, according to Motor Intelligence. And the automaker has told suppliers it will trim overall production in 2009 by 12% to address flagging demand.

It's really discouraging when technology and markets are out of sync.

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