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Toyota mulls Prius family expansion

DETROIT (Reuters) - A top executive with the U.S. arm of Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T said on Monday the automaker may expand the Prius nameplate into a marketing sub-brand for a broad family of low-emission, high-mileage hybrid vehicles.

Speaking at the Reuters Auto Summit in Detroit, Bob Carter, the group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc, said the proposal was controversial within the company and that a final decision on the idea was more than a year away.

But as long as Prius was expanded only into a sub-brand and not a separate franchise, Carter said the change “was one that I support.” He said he believed his boss, Jim Lentz, the president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, supported the idea, too.

“Prius has become such an icon in the market that it is my desire, and the desire by many of us ... that we nurture Prius beyond one vehicle and more into a family of vehicles,” Carter said.

Life beyond Prius’ current incarnation as a sedan comparable to the company’s Camry might include making it bigger “to meet the needs of larger families” and “smaller to meet the needs of people who do not need the space of a mid-sized sedan,” Carter said.

He said Toyota currently claimed about three-quarters of the hybrid market and that it expects to sell globally “in excess of 1 million hybrids per year in the relatively near future.” He said that by the 2020s, hybrids would be either optional or standard equipment on every vehicle Toyota sells.

Carter said consumer demand for clean, efficient vehicles remained high despite a dramatic retreat in fuel prices over the past year.

“It’s almost as if the consumer is saying, ‘Yes, I understand fuel prices are low today but I am buying this car with the intention of driving it five or six years and I don’t have confidence that fuel prices will stay low,’” he said

Carter said Toyota, which already offers seven hybrids in its Toyota and Lexus lines, planned to introduce 10 more globally in the coming years.

Reporting by James B. Kelleher, editing by Matthew Lewis