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Toyota eyes a bigger future for Prius

 Posted by on October 13, 2008
Oct 132008

By Tom Kessler

Just as the iPod has become synonymous with digital music players, Toyota’s Prius is the primary car people tend to think of when it comes to hybrid electric vehicles. The Prius alone accounts for 75 percent of the hybrid cars sold in the United States, according to Toyota.

With Honda taking aim at the same market with its redesigned, very Prius-looking Insight, it appears Toyota may try to extend its lead by turning Prius into a line of cars much like its Scion and Lexus brands. The New York Times reports that James E. Lentz III, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., is lobbying Toyota executives in Japan to make the move.

Lentz may well have the clout to pull this off: Americans buy 65 to 70 percent of all Toyota hybrids sold worldwide. The Times says Lentz doesn’t know when Toyota might approve the project but talks will continue next month in Japan.

The separate Prius brand would be sold only in the United States.

Meanwhile, Toyota is continuing to develop other alternative fuel programs for the future. At a recent Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar in Portland, Ore., company officials announced that four RAV4 electric vehicles will be used by the City of Portland and the state of Oregon to develop an electric-charging infrastructure in preparation for the arrival of future zero- and low-emission vehicles. Portland State University will use the vehicles to shuttle people from mass-transit terminals to downtown and suburban locations.

The company also is planning to unveil a natural gas–powered Camry hybrid concept vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show next month.

And in September, Toyota began testing a plug-in Prius hybrid on public roads in the United Kingdom. The prototype is similar to the current Prius, with the exception of a second nickel-metal hydride hybrid battery pack that provides greater electric power. With more electric power in reserve, the vehicle is capable of operating in pure-electric mode longer and faster than the current Prius.

Toyota also says it is accelerating development of plug-in hybrid vehicles equipped with lithium-ion batteries. The company will begin sales to fleet customers at the end of 2009.

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