DETROIT -- Toyota Motor Corp. is looking to keep the Prius in its spot as the top-selling hybrid in the U.S. with the next generation of the iconic fuel-sipper.
The highly anticipated 2010 Prius unveiled Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit gets an average of 50 miles to the gallon. That's a 4 mpg improvement over the current model, which already is the most fuel-efficient vehicle ranked by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"It's a core model for us," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in an interview before the Prius' unveiling. "It's a very, very important piece for us."
The third generation gas-electric Prius has a more aerodynamic design, but its exterior is easily recognizable as a Prius. Toyota says pricing will be released before the midsize sedan goes on sale in late spring.
Toyota Motor Corp. also will offer options such as a moonroof with solar panels to power the ventilation system.
"Since Prius was first introduced, the consumer demographic has shifted from an early adopter to a mainstream shopper," Bob Carter, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager, told reporters at a news conference.
"The Prius has evolved to meet the changing needs of this growing and diverse customer base."
Carter said the 2010 Prius will go on sale in the U.S. and Japan in late spring, followed shortly by Canada and other countries. The automaker hopes to sell 180,000 new Prius vehicles in the U.S. this year and its global sales goal is 400,000 units by 2010.
Automakers are using the Detroit auto show to spotlight more fuel efficient vehicles. The new Prius debuted a day after Honda unveiled its next-generation hybrid, the 2010 Insight, which will arrive in U.S. showrooms this April and is expected to compete head-on with the Prius.
Honda Motor Co. said the Insight will have a lower price than the Civic Hybrid, which has a base price of $23,650. The 2009 version of the Prius starts at $22,000.
Lentz said he expects the Insight will appeal to buyers focused on its low price, but Prius will draw drivers looking for a slightly larger vehicle and Toyota's technology.
Also Sunday, Toyota's Lexus luxury arm unveiled a new hybrid sedan called the HS250h, and Ford Motor Co. showed off the 2010 Fusion Hybrid that will get 41 city mpg and 36 mpg on highways. The Fusion was unveiled in November and goes on sale this spring.
The debuts come as hybrid sales have tumbled. Gas-electric cars sold briskly as gas prices peaked last summer but have since come down sharply as fuel prices collapsed to their lowest levels in six years. But Toyota says it expects gas prices to stabilize at a higher level, boosting long-term demand for hybrids.
Prius sales fell 45 percent in December, but Toyota says the new Prius will help increase demand for the car -- including by current owners who want to upgrade.
Last month, Toyota said it was shelving its plans to build the Prius in Mississippi amid the industrywide downturn. Toyota's plant under construction in Blue Springs, Miss., was scheduled to begin production in 2010, marking the first time the Prius would be built outside of Japan and China.
Toyota had invested $300 million in the plant before saying it was delaying production there indefinitely.
The new Prius is getting larger and more powerful 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Toyota says the bigger engine helps improve fuel economy on the highway.
The optional solar-powered ventilation system uses an electrically powered air circulation fan that doesn't need the engine to work. It prevents the interior air temperature from rising while the vehicle is parked.
The ventilation system can be remotely operated, so drivers can adjust the interior temperature before getting inside. Toyota says this remote air conditioning system is an industry first.