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Hybrid sales have dipped lately as lower gas prices have dulled consumer interest in relatively expensive alternative-fuel vehicles. But now Toyota wants to re-energize hybrids with a brand new version of the Prius, by far the most successful hybrid vehicle to date.

Priced from $24,200, the 2016 Prius comes at a time when Toyota’s overall sales are on a roll in the U.S. market. According to Bill Fay, Toyota group vice president, the company’s October sales were at an all-time high and year-to-date sales are up 20 percent. As a whole, the U.S .market appears to be on track for 17.4 million vehicle sales in 2015, the best total since 2000.

The Prius is just one of a whole range of hybrid models Toyota sells in the U.S. under its own brand name and Lexus luxury division. “Worldwide, we have sold eight million hybrids to date, saving 5.8 billion gallons of gas in the process,” says Fay. As for the Prius, it has become a household name in the U.S., not the least because of its popularity with a varied audience, from taxi drivers to environmentalists.

“The Prius sells seven times the volume of its nearest rival,” Fay notes.

Though the Prius has done well, it has appealed mainly to buyers interested in fuel economy. “Early buyers were environmentalists, trend setters and techies,” adds Fay. “But the new Prius is not just about mpg anymore.”

To underscore that point, Toyota has not only made significant Prius design changes inside and out, but has engineered the car to have much more dynamic — verging on sporty — handling characteristics.

For a company as conservative as Toyota, it is a radical move. Based on a new global vehicle platform (that will spawn the next Corolla subcompact among other vehicles), the 2016 Prius has a 60 percent stiffer chassis, and for the first time an independent rear suspension system. Both of these measures, plus optional 17-inch wheels (versus standard 15-inch rims), create a car with much more responsive steering, tighter handling and far less body roll through corners.

At the same time the new Prius retains its fuel economy bona fides. “It has the best mpg of any vehicle without a plug,” claims Prius product expert Dave Lee. The standard Prius Two model returns 54 mpg in the city EPA cycle, and the Prius Two Eco model does even better with a 58 mpg city rating.

Much of the Prius’ fuel efficiency comes from its wind-cheating design. This is improved in the new model with more extensive underbody panels and grille shutters that close in certain conditions. Another significant engineering change is the move from a nickel metal hybrid battery to a more advanced and lighter lithium ion battery in all versions except the base Prius Two model.

Inside, the Prius sees extensive design changes and refinements to the instrument panel, seats and cargo area. A bundle of new safety features are also rolled, including lane departure steering assist and a pre-collision alert system that can detect pedestrians.

Toyota hopes that adding a sporting element to the Prius may help refashion its image as a dull-to-drive, tree-huggers’ ride. Yet eco-conscious buyers will still approve because the car’s fuel economy has improved. That, at least, is the strategy to maintaining the Prius as the king of hybrids.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

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