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Toyota Stays on Hybrid Track

The automaker will roll out a gasoline-electric SUV next year and hints that a Tundra pickup version will follow.

January 05, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp. said Sunday that it would launch its third hybrid-powered vehicle in the U.S. by early next year and hinted strongly that a hybrid version of its full-size Tundra pickup is in the works.

The company's newest hybrid will be a Highlander sport utility vehicle, Toyota said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The announcement was accompanied by an unusual bit of boasting. The third hybrid from Toyota and its Lexus luxury division comes "before most manufacturers have launched their first," said Jim Press, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA.

Hybrids combine two types of propulsion systems, typically an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, and offer improved fuel economy. Toyota's first hybrid, the Prius, is a compact sedan rated at 60 miles per gallon in city driving.

So far, the only competition in hybrids is from another Japanese automaker, Honda Motor Co., which sells a pair of hybrids: the two-seat Insight and the five-passenger Civic Hybrid. Ford Motor Co. is scheduled to introduce a hybrid version of its Escape SUV this summer, and other automakers are expected to have hybrid models ready in 2005 and beyond.

Toyota's newest hybrid will be a powerful 270-horsepower, seven-passenger, gasoline-electric version of its Highlander SUV, Press said.

A hybrid Tundra, using the truck's V-8 engine and an electric drive system, also "is something to consider down the line," he said.

A hybrid pickup will not be offered until after the next-generation Tundra goes into production at Toyota's new factory in Texas in 2006, Press said.

Toyota executives in Japan and the U.S. have said they intended to offer hybrids in all the popular vehicle lines. Pickup trucks remain one of the most popular vehicle types in the U.S. but have come under fire for poor fuel economy -- a situation a hybrid could help resolve.

Toyota's second hybrid is the RX 400h sport utility, a gasoline-electric version of the Lexus RX 330. It is scheduled to go on sale toward the end of 2004.

The company's new hybrid system, which initially will be used in the RX 400h, offers greatly increased power from the electric motor. By coupling the new electronics to the luxury SUV's standard 3.3-liter V-6, Toyota engineers were able to bump output to approximately 270 horsepower from 230. The same increase will occur in the hybrid Highlander, Press said.

Along with the more than 17% power boost, fuel economy is expected to nearly double from the standard V-6 Highlander's EPA rating of 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.

Both the Lexus and Highlander hybrids are expected to cost more than their standard gasoline-fueled counterparts. V-6-equipped Highlanders with three rows of seating now run from $30,500 to $32,000.

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