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GREEN GARAGE

Prius upgrades won't show on sticker

Toyota's 2004 hybrid is roomier and has better fuel efficiency, but base price is unchanged.

July 23, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Toyota's redesigned 2004 Prius hybrid is bigger, more powerful and more fuel efficient than the current version, but Toyota says the base price will remain unchanged at $20,480 ($19,995 plus Toyota's $485 destination charge).

With all options, including navigation system, front and rear side curtain air bags, keyless entry and keyless push-button starting, the top-of-the-line model will come in at less than $25,000.

The new Prius, expected to hit showrooms in October, is a five-door hatchback that has more interior room, thanks to a 6-inch extension of the wheelbase, and almost 50% more cargo room than its predecessor.

It uses a new version of Toyota's hybrid system, called Hybrid Synergy Drive, that augments a more powerful electric drive with a small internal combustion engine.

The system on the '04 Prius is beefier than the one used in the 6-year-old first-generation model and generates 50% more horsepower. Toyota says the mid-size '04 model should do zero to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, versus 12.8 seconds for today's smaller, lighter compact model.

The new Prius also is expected to see a 15% improvement in fuel economy -- 55 miles per gallon versus 48 in combined city and highway driving -- and to produce 30% less emissions.

Toyota executives say they expect annual sales of the new model to hit 36,000 units in the United States, up from 20,000 in 2002.

New hybrid lines

Toyota isn't sitting still with the Prius. It already has announced a hybrid version of the new Lexus RX 330, to be called the RX 400H, which is due next year as a 2005 model. And the Japanese automaker is talking about several more hybrids for the Toyota division, including a gas-electric version of the Highlander crossover sport utility.

Toyota insiders also say that other vehicles built on the Camry platform, including the Camry itself, are potentials for hybrid motors.

The company's new Hybrid Synergy Drive system is adaptable across a broad line of internal combustion engines, from inline four-cylinder models to V-8 versions.

Toyota expects to eventually have hybrids in all three categories. The V-8 version is being studied for the Lexus brand and is probably several years down the road, as is a hybrid version of the V-6 powered Toyota Sienna minivan.

FedEx fuel cell vehicle

General Motors Corp. and FedEx Corp. made history this month when the delivery service's Japanese unit put a GM fuel cell vehicle into daily service in downtown Tokyo.

The vehicle, GM's HydroGen3, is based on the company's European Opel Zafira minivan. It passes pressurized hydrogen and oxygen over a catalyst to produce electricity that powers an electric drive system.

GM and FedEx are cooperating in a yearlong experiment designed to generate real-word performance data. They plotted a delivery route in central Tokyo that is one of the toughest urban test beds on the planet.

"It's really important to get fuel cell vehicles on the road in competitive business environments like the ones FedEx works in on the streets of Tokyo," said Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development.

GM has approximately 600 people working on fuel cell technology at its U.S. facilities -- in Torrance, Honeoye Falls, N.Y., and Warren, Mich. -- and in Germany and Japan.

The Torrance facility is a system integrator, where all the bits and pieces are installed on the vehicles.

System stopped cold

One of the obstacles to widespread automotive use of fuel cells is the difficulty of developing a system that works in extremely cold weather.

The problem is that fuel cell power plants, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, also produce and consume water. And it has been difficult to start fuel cells after the water in the system has frozen.

So South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. has teamed up with UTC Fuel Cells of South Windsor, Conn., to develop a fuel cell that will work in subzero temperatures.

The two companies have been working together since 2000, when the first Hyundai Santa Fe sport utility vehicle powered by a fuel cell system was unveiled at the California Fuel Cell Partnership test facility near Sacramento.

Since then Hyundai and UTC have collaborated on six fuel cell Santa Fe prototypes.

UTC, a unit of Hartford, Conn.-based United Technologies Corp., also has fuel cell development agreements with Nissan Motor Co. and Bayerische Moteren Werke.

Hyundai has said it plans to begin placing fuel cell vehicles into fleet applications as early as next year, with limited consumer availability planned for 2010.

That's approximately the same timetable as GM has announced.

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John O'Dell covers the auto industry for the Business Section. He can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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