Toyota aims to take on EVs with plug-in Prius hybrid

TOKYO Tue Nov 29, 2011 3:31am EST

A Toyota staff holds a charger next to a Prius PHV during a photo session in Tokyo November 29, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A Toyota staff holds a charger next to a Prius PHV during a photo session in Tokyo November 29, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp said it would start taking orders for its first plug-in hybrid car, the Prius PHV, in Japan on Tuesday, touting it as the world's most practical green car and aiming to steal thunder from pure battery-powered vehicles.

Unveiling the production-ready car ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show this week, Toyota said the rechargeable Prius PHV would be priced from 3.2 million yen ($41,000) in Japan, higher than what it had flagged two years ago but cheaper than Nissan Motor Co's Leaf electric car, which costs 3.76 million yen before subsidies.

With Japanese government incentives, the Prius PHV will cost 2.75 million yen, Toyota said.

Toyota's new model adds an external charging function and more batteries to the popular Prius to enable longer-distance driving on electricity alone. It packs high-capacity lithium-ion batteries that can be charged in 90 minutes on 200 volts. The batteries will be built by a joint venture with Panasonic Corp.

Toyota aims to sell 60,000 Prius PHVs a year globally, including 35,000 to 40,000 in Japan, where deliveries will begin January 30.

The car will be sold from next spring in the United States with a starting price of $32,000 and from summer in Europe, at 37,000 euros in Germany. Prices will vary across markets, Toyota said.

Because they can also run on gasoline, plug-in hybrids eliminate "range anxiety," which is seen as one of the main shortcomings of battery-powered purely electric vehicles (EVs). Nissan's Leaf has a range of about 160 km (100 miles), which is sharply reduced when the air conditioner is on.

Toyota said the Prius PHV can travel 26.4 km (16.4 miles) using only the electric motor, making a short commute possible on zero emissions. On a full charge and with a full tank of gasoline, the car could theoretically travel well over 1,000 km (620 miles). In combined EV and hybrid driving modes, the car has a mileage of 61.0 km/liter, it said.

"We believe it's the best-suited technology for widespread use," said Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada.

To test their viability, Toyota has leased more than 600 Prius PHVs since last year, mainly to governments and businesses in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Uchiyamada said one housewife in Toyota City who tested the car over three months drove on average 249 km on one liter of gasoline, mainly using the car for shopping and other short-distance travel, and recharging it every time she returned home.

STRONG YEN TO BITE

Toyota plans to introduce other plug-in hybrids as key vehicles for improving fuel economy and reducing emissions. It is positioning pure EVs as city commuters, with the first model due out next year.

Since introducing the first gasoline-electric car with the Prius in late 1997, Toyota has sold a cumulative 3.4 million hybrids worldwide.

The Prius PHV will be built in Japan, which could make it difficult to make money on exports. At current exchange rates, the car costs almost $10,000 less in the United States than in Japan. Toyota executives had said two years ago that the Prius PHV would be "affordable" and cost much less than 3 million yen.

General Motors Co is also looking to win over environmentally conscious consumers with its Volt plug-in hybrid, although its price tag of $41,000is considered prohibitive.

The Volt also hit a snag recently, with U.S. regulators deciding last week to investigate the safety of the car after its battery pack caught fire in crash tests.

The Volt uses "range extender" technology to generate electricity on-board with the gasoline engine and carries 180 kg (400 lbs) of batteries.

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)