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Toyota expands its Prius line

Toyota unveils two additions to the Prius nameplate at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Prius v is a station wagon hybrid, and the Prius c is designed for city driving.

January 11, 2011|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob Carter, the Toyota brand's U.S. sales chief, introduces the Prius v, a station wagon hybrid that is scheduled to go on sale this summer. It will get about 40 mpg.
Bob Carter, the Toyota brand's U.S. sales chief, introduces the Prius… (Paul Sancya, Associated…)

Reporting from Detroit — Toyota Motor Corp. is rolling out a line of Prius vehicles, hoping to capitalize on the world's most popular hybrid nameplate and one of its more successful models.

The Japanese automaker used the North American International Auto Show here to unveil the Prius v, a station wagon hybrid with 50% more cargo space than the regular Prius, which Toyota will continue to sell. The new model is scheduled to go on sale this summer.

"This gives customers options," said Ed LaRocque, Toyota's manager for advanced technology vehicle marketing. "The Prius family of vehicles will be core to our future portfolio of products, and it is going to give our customers a brand within the Toyota brand."

Toyota also showed off a concept for a tiny Prius model, designed for city driving and with mileage far beyond the 50 mpg of the current model. The Prius c is expected to reach dealer showrooms in 2012. Additionally, the automaker displayed a plug-in version of the current Prius that's designed to travel about 13 miles solely on electric power before the gasoline engine kicks in. It will be sold starting in early 2012.

The announcement will probably get closer attention in California, where 30% of all Priuses are sold. In all, Toyota has sold nearly 1 million Priuses since introducing the first version in 2000.

Analysts said they believe consumers will respond to the expanded Prius line.

"It is an excellent strategy and probably the best thing they have done in several years when it comes to introducing a new vehicle," said Dave Sullivan, a product analyst in Detroit for the AutoPacific Inc. consulting firm.

He said the introductions come at a time when the Toyota lineup has become "dull and aging and doesn't exude much enthusiasm."

Toyota was the only major auto company to see sales decrease last year from 2009. Much of the decline came from damage to its image after a series of large recalls, but analysts also noted that its two core models — the Camry and Corolla — are aging and face stiff competition from rivals with newer styling and slicker features.

But hybrid autos is one segment in which Toyota continues to shine, even as the competition has grown. Diverse offerings include the sporty and tiny Honda CR-Z and the Porsche Cayenne SUV hybrid. There are about 30 hybrid models now on sale.

Americans purchased 275,000 hybrids last year, and more than half — 140,000 — were Priuses.

"It is incredibly dominant. Prius outsold the entire Acura and Infiniti brands," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive.

That success makes the expansion of the line with more body styles appealing for the automaker, she said. But there's still a risk that Toyota might not attract buyers who otherwise would have purchased a conventional gasoline-engine vehicle or a rival hybrid.

"You just don't want to appeal to the same 140,000 people," Lindland said, otherwise Toyota will "just be spreading cost across nearly the same volume of sales, and that is a losing proposition."

The Prius faithful were charged up by Toyota's move.

"It is a good move. The Prius is the car everyone thinks of for fuel efficiency and being green. More people will buy them," said Theodore Samets, a Prius owner from Charlotte, Vt.

And Toyota might be the beneficiary of fortuitous timing.

The automaker's move to expand the Prius into a sub-brand comes just as gasoline prices are starting to head back up after a two-year lull. The average retail price of a gallon of gasoline Friday was $3.08 nationally and $3.34 in California, up substantially from $2.71 nationally and $3.03 in California a year earlier, according to the American Automobile Assn.'s daily survey of fuel prices.

The Prius v, because it will be about six inches longer than the flagship Prius, will get about 40 mpg, LaRocque said.

It will have a wide rear hatch with 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. LaRocque said that's more than any other "dedicated" hybrid, or a vehicle originally designed to have a combination electric-gasoline engine drive. It will have fold-down seats that will provide more hauling space.

The Prius c concept — the c is for city — will be targeted at singles and couples who want a small, high-mileage vehicle. Toyota is not discussing the mileage expectations except to say it will be the most of any "cordless" hybrid auto. It will also be the least expensive of what by then will be four Prius models.

"These are the right products for the right time for Toyota," Sullivan said.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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