Toyota Gambles Big On Hybrids

Giant Japanese automaker has set lofty goals for its hybrids

2012 Toyota Prius DT
2012 Toyota Prius DT

There is no doubt that the Toyota has been a stunning success for Japan’s giant automaker. Toyota has sold more than 1 million Prius models in the United States since the first-generation 2001 model was introduced. It currently sells at a 200,000-car-a-year pace in the United States, making it a sales winner. Its advanced technology has also reflected well on Toyota, giving the company a special place in the hearts of environmentalists.

Toyota is not satisfied with just one Prius

But the company is not satisfied with one Prius; now it has announced three others, including the eagerly awaited Prius Plug-in Hybrid. It is all part of a master plan initiated when Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe established a company goal of selling 1 million hybrids a year this decade. While the Prius gives the company a leg up in that direction, it is still a very tall order — a goal some outside observers believe is far too lofty.

But one thing Toyota engineers always attempt to do is achieve company goals, so they have created the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the latest hybrid model to join the range. It supplements the third-generation Prius Liftback and the new Prius v, which is essentially a station wagon version of the Liftback. The Prius c, a smaller conventional hybrid, will come to market next year. The big question is will the new Prii add buyers to the Toyota brand, or will they simply steal buyers who otherwise would have purchased the Prius Liftback, the car some refer to as “the real Prius?” Behind the scenes, Toyota’s American executives candidly admit that they don’t have the answer to that question.

Questions they can answer concern the advantages the Prius Plug-in Hybrid offers over the standard Prius we have come to know. First, they point out that it combines the benefits of the standard Prius model’s hybrid vehicle operation with extended electric-vehicle-mode driving, plus it is more affordable than pure electric or range-extender type (e.g., Chevrolet Volt) vehicles. Then there are the 87 miles per gallon equivalent in combined driving and the 49 miles per gallon in hybrid mode.

What is the right amount of electric-only range?

The Holy Grail for some hybrid buyers is electric-only range, and they might be a bit disappointed that the Prius Plug-in Hybrid offers just 15 miles of EV-only range at speeds up to 62 miles per hour. Better news is the quick home-charging using a standard AC outlet and 15-amp dedicated circuit. The Plug-in Hybrid uses the Hybrid Synergy Drive of the standard Prius model that will seamlessly switch into hybrid operation from battery-only at a predetermined state of battery charge. A newly developed 4.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack replaces the standard Prius model’s nickel-metal hydride battery and fits under the rear cargo floor, and the vehicle adds an easy-to-use external charging cable. A full charge using an external AC outlet takes approximately 2.5 to 3.0 hours using a 120-volt household current (standard in the U.S.) or 1.5 hours using a 240-volt outlet, the kind that might power a clothes dryer. The 120-volt charging cable connects to the charging port inlet located on the right-rear fender.

The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will carry a robust complement of comfort and convenience features, but will also offer a low curb-weight, which helps immensely with fuel economy. Now facing an all-electric Nissan LEAF and the technologically advanced, electrically driven Chevrolet Volt, the Plug-in Prius will have to prove that it has the mojo to maintain Toyota’s alternative-propulsion leadership.