Toyota engineer aims to recharge sales for Prius plug-in

TOKYO (Reuters) - The chief engineer of Toyota Motor Corp’s Prius gasoline hybrid cars said he would like to see the automaker sell 1 million units of the new plug-in version over its product life cycle, saying the vehicle is set to become its showpiece “eco” car in the next decade or so.

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With the plug-in Prius, which launches in Japan, North America and Europe in the coming months, Prius chief engineer Koji Toyoshima told Reuters in an interview that he would like to replicate the sales growth pattern of the conventional Prius.

Each generation of the conventional Prius achieved strong sales growth: roughly 100,000 units for first generation launched in 1997, followed by 1 million for the next generation from 2003 and 2.5 million for the following generation from 2009.

Toyoshima referred to the sales rises as its “hop”, “step”, and “jump” phases.

“We need to see that kind of volume with the plug-in during the upcoming ‘step’ phase, as we did with the second-generation conventional Prius, to achieve the momentum to get to the ‘jump’ phase,” he said.

Selling 1 million units over the model cycle, which usually runs around five years, would translate to around 200,000 units per year, eclipsing the 75,000 units sold worldwide during the “hop” phase of the first version, which launched in 2012.

Toyota stopped production of the first-generation plug-in last year, and has acknowledged that it sold poorly due to its limited range and relatively high price. The majority were sold in Japan and North America.

Toyoshima said that he expected that Toyota’s official sales target for the second generation would likely be lower, given that demand for plug-in vehicles remains limited worldwide. Global plug-in hybrid sales accounted for 0.29 percent of total passenger car and SUV sales in 2015, according to data from LMC Automotive.

Hitting the 1 million sales mark would take the automaker a step closer towards its goal of making all its new vehicles virtually free of carbon emissions by 2050. Tighter regulations are also requiring Toyota and other automakers to produce and market more lower emissions vehicles.

The Prius rose from being a favorite among tech-obsessed drivers and environmentally minded celebrities to become the world’s best selling “eco” car.

Like the conventional Prius, the plug-in operates on both a gasoline engine and a battery-powered motor, but it can travel double the distance - roughly 22 miles (35.41 km) - in battery electric mode and can be recharged using a household socket.

Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Stephen Coates and Edwina Gibbs