DETROIT (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp unveiled a family of Prius cars with two new additions to the lineup as it aims to build the iconic hybrid series into a core pillar in the United States, its single-biggest market.
The roomier Prius v and compact Prius c concept were among the highlights of the Detroit auto show, where rivals also revealed green cars in a bid to attract an increasingly fuel-conscious customer base.
Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, has dominated the gasoline-electric hybrid market since putting its first Prius on the road in 1997. Toyota has 14 hybrid models globally and is planning 11 more over the next two years, winning it a reputation as arguably the most advanced car maker in fuel-efficient vehicle technology.
While rival Nissan Motor Co and General Motors Co look to share the green limelight with their Leaf and Volt electric cars launched last month, sales volumes are expected to stay at a fraction of the Prius until the high price of batteries comes down significantly.
Sales of Toyota’s Prius hatchback soared 36 percent last year to 140,928 units, according to Autodata, making it the most popular hybrid car on the road by far.
“Prius has become to hybrids what Kleenex is to tissues and Levi’s are to jeans,” Bob Carter, Toyota brand’s U.S. chief, said at the unveiling.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda, who opened the news conference at the auto show on Monday, said the Prius was gradually growing into a fourth pillar for the Japanese automaker in the United States, joining Corolla, Camry and its truck line.
Under the tagline “Prius Goes Plural,” Toyota showcased the two new models alongside the current third-generation Prius and a plug-in hybrid (PHV) version of the car that Toyota plans to begin selling to individuals next year.
The five-seater Prius v will hit U.S. showrooms this summer targeting families looking for more cargo space and utility, Carter said. It will get an estimated 40 miles per gallon combined for city and highway driving. The Japanese version is expected to include a three-row option.
Toyota also introduced the Prius c concept, which it called a city-friendly car aimed at young singles and couples who want a high mileage and fun-to-drive Prius with a roomy interior.
“It will be the most value-oriented hybrid, with the highest mileage of any ‘plugless’ hybrid available in the U.S.,” Carter said, indicating that its mileage would exceed the conventional Prius’ combined 50 mpg.
A production model based on the Prius c concept will go on sale in the United States in the latter half of 2012.
Competing for buzz with Ford Motor Co’s Focus EV and the nearly 40 other world premieres at the Detroit auto show, Toyota splurged for a full-page newspaper sleeve on Monday in an ad calling on readers to cast a vote on the definitive term for the plural of Prius.
“Prii? Prien? Priuses? Prium? or Prius? What’s the plural of Prius?” the ad read. Toyota asked for votes on toyota.com/priusfamily, but it was not immediately clear where they could be cast.
To drive home the popularity of hybrids, Toyota took a jab at rival GM in an uncharacteristic display of sharp elbows, accusing it of writing the Prius off when the first generation arrived in the United States in 1999.
“One well-known critic called it ‘a PR stunt’ and dismissed all hybrids as ‘an interesting curiosity,'” Carter said, stopping short of identifying the accused as former GM product czar Bob Lutz, but displaying his full-length image nevertheless on the presentation screen behind him.
Carter closed his remarks by mentioning the Prius’s robust sales in December, labeling the car on its visual presentation as “Geek Mobile,” a moniker recently bestowed on the Prius by GM CEO Dan Akerson. The sales graph showed the “Geek Mobile” far outselling Ford’s Fusion and GM’s Chevy Malibu.
“I’ll admit it, I‘m a Prius Geek,” Carter said. “And I‘m proud of it!”
Toyota has a goal of selling at least 1 million hybrid vehicles a year globally before the middle of the decade, eventually offering a hybrid option on all of its models by 2020.
“They are THE hybrid company and when you think hybrid you think Toyota. You think Prius,” said Michael Maroone, president of AutoNation Inc, the largest U.S. dealership group.
With gasoline prices approaching $4 in some U.S. regions, Carter said the new Prius models should help Toyota boost its hybrid sales further this year.
“We will grow faster than the industry (this year),” Carter told Reuters in an interview, forecasting overall U.S. market growth of 9-10 percent.
With more than $30 billion in cash and securities in its war chest, Toyota is among the few car manufacturers that can afford to develop vehicles across a range of technologies and the batteries needed to power pure electric cars.
Toyota is also planning to launch two pure electric cars next year in the United States: an electric RAV4 crossover developed with U.S. start-up Tesla Motors and a tiny urban commuter model based on its own technology.
Additional reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Phil Berlowitz