AUTOSHOW-UPDATE 2-Toyota steps up hybrid push with new Prius

Mon Jan 12, 2009 1:51pm EST

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By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia autos correspondent

DETROIT Jan 12 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) on Monday unveiled its third-generation Prius hybrid, the world's top-selling "green" car, targeting U.S. sales of 180,000 units in the first 12 months and 400,000 globally in 2010.

Introducing the mid-sized sedan at the Detroit auto show, Toyota said the new Prius achieved a combined city/highway mileage of 50 miles per gallon, an improvement over the 46 mpg for the current model and 41 mpg for the first version.

The car will hit showrooms in Japan and the United States in late spring, followed by other markets around the world.

"We're very bullish about the new Prius," Bob Carter, group vice president of Toyota Motor Sales, told Reuters in an interview this week.

He said internal research showed that 93 percent of Prius owners plan to stay with the Prius when they buy their next car, making the model the industry leader in owner satisfaction.

Taking a major step towards its goal of selling 1 million hybrid vehicles a year soon after 2010, Carter said Toyota would sell the new Prius in 80 countries, nearly double the number of markets where the current version is available.

Toyota has sold 1.7 million hybrid vehicles globally since it blazed the trail with the first Prius in late 1997.

Honda Motor Co (7267.T), which introduced its first hybrid, the Insight, two years behind Toyota, has sold just under 300,000 hybrids total. MORE POWER, HIGH-TECH FEATURES

Toyota did not announce pricing on the 2010 model year Prius, which it said was roomier, quieter and packed more advanced features such as an optional moonroof with solar panels, four driving modes, and a monitor-guided parking assist system, among others.

The Prius will be driven by a more powerful 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine.

True to its name, the newest Prius, which means "to go before" in Latin, holds 1,000 patents -- a jump from the combined 670 filed for the first two generations, Carter said.

In the latest innovation, the car will be available with a sliding glass moonroof packaged with solar panels that power a ventilation system to circulate air in the car's interior. By doing so, the system prevents the temperature inside the car on a hot day when it is parked, reducing the use of air-conditioning.

Still, fuel-efficient cars are facing headwinds after gasoline prices fell by more than half their peak last July. Worried about job security amid a faltering economy, many U.S. consumers have also held off from purchasing any type of car in recent months.

Prius sales in the United States, its biggest market, plunged 45 percent last month, bringing the model's total 2008 sales to fewer than 160,000 units, down 13 percent.

With its bottom line hit from plunging sales and a stronger yen, Toyota has suspended work on its new plant in the state of Mississippi which was slated to begin production of the Prius beginning in late 2010. [ID:nN15325660]

But Toyota executives said they expected gasoline prices to climb back up once the economy recovers, making the case for hybrids and other fuel-sipping cars.

A day earlier, Toyota launched the HS250h, its luxury Lexus brand's first dedicated hybrid car, due for sale this summer in the United States. [ID:nN11295861]

"Our first full calendar year we'll (sell) about 30,000 units," Mark Templin, group vice president of the Lexus division for North America, told Reuters on Monday.

"But I will tell you, our dealers really like the car and they think it's going to be very successful. So they think we're conservative, and I hope that's the case."

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, editing by Peter Bohan)

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