UPDATE 1-Toyota to launch lithium battery Prius in 2011 - Nikkei

April 17 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T will launch competitively priced Prius hybrid minivans using lithium ion batteries early next year, the Nikkei business daily reported.

Toyota plans to keep the price of the new Prius model at a level similar to those of current models as it aims to strengthen its lead in the hybrid market, the daily said.

The new Prius minivan will offer a spacious interior and improved fuel economy, and will likely feature three rows of seats for carrying five to seven people, the paper said.

The company will initially manufacture lithium ion batteries at its Teiho factory in Aichi Prefecture, and later plans to produce them at Panasonic EV Energy Co, a battery joint venture with Panasonic Corp 6752.T, the Nikkei said.

A lithium-ion battery can pack more electricity than a nickel-metal hydride counterpart, enabling a hybrid car to run longer on a single charge. (Reporting by Vinay Sarawagi in Bangalore; Editing by Anne Pallivathuckal)