Expanding Prius Family Amps Toyota

Posted by John Dolan | Posted in Hybrids, News | Posted on 07-07-2011

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Any way you look at it, Toyota hasn’t exactly been riding the fortuitous train of late.  In a normal world the automaker would not have to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis crippling cities and disrupting power in Japan.  Not a company to rest on past accomplishments, Toyota is working day and night to get production up and in order.  Eight of Toyota’s North American-built models are already at 100 percent production.  Global output is expected to get back to normal levels by October. After September Toyota will shift focus to making-up lost production as much as possible.

While Toyota has worked tirelessly to recover operations it has also been pursuing the company’s established long-term growth strategy.  That includes developing fuel cell and electric cars, the next generation Prius as well as rolling out new compact and hybrid models within the Prius extended family.

This past May, Toyota launched the Prius ‘a’ or Prius Alpha in Japan, a sort of bigger, roomier minivan-ish Prius.  The orders poured in.  In the first month Toyota received 52,000 orders for the Alpha.  Last month Toyota sold 19,429 Prius vehicles in Japan where it has been perennially the best seller nationally.  Toyota seems to be getting their groove back.  Now Toyota has a good problem – delivering.  When earlier models of the Prius were released, buyers queued up on waiting lists for their prized Prius.  This was especially common in 2005 and 2006 when waiting lists deferred Prius gratification for most hand raisers.  Admittedly, it is a good problem to have and Toyota is prepared for it.

The North American version of the Prius Alpha will be called the Prius v (for versatile) and will be available around mid-October of this year.  The Prius v will have SUV-like cargo capacity, nearly 60% more than the current Prius.  There are 39 inches between the insides of the wheel wells, enough to accommodate dog carriers or whatever can be slid in through the tail gate.  The Prius v adds three inches of wheelbase, six inches of overall length, three inches of height and an inch of width compared with the venerable, standard Prius.  Every body panel on the 2012 Prius v is different from the standard Prius, yet it is un-mistakenly a Prius.  It drives and handles like a ‘regular ‘ Prius despite the longer wheel base.  The Prius v employs the same hybrid system as the parent Prius yet, it delivers EPA fuel economy ratings of 42 mpg combined even with the extra size.  Toyota expects that the Prius v will expand the market for potential Prius customers by up to 20 percent.  If you like the Prius and the only thing that held you back from owning one was the cargo space well,  the Prius v is your hybrid .

The second Prius sibling to be added to the line-up, the so-called ‘baby’ Prius or Prius c is headed to production.  Expect to see the Prius c (for ‘compact’ or ‘city’) by early 2012.  The compact Prius hatchback is intended to be a city-friendly vehicle that Toyota believes will be the most fuel-efficient hybrid on the market.  It will be about 20 inches shorter than the standard Prius (about 6 inches longer than the current Yaris) and employ Toyota’s new THSII hybrid system.  Target pricing for the Prius c is expected to be around the $20,000 mark.

Other advanced vehicles arriving from Toyota in 2012 will definitely require a plug-in.  It’s no surprise that one of these advanced technology vehicles from Toyota is a plug-in version of the popular Prius.  The car will have an all-electric range of 14 miles which according to Toyota is plenty of juice for most city drivers.  Once the ‘charge depleting’ portion of the PHEV Prius battery pack runs out, it just gets plugged in again.  For longer trips, the car reverts back to operating as a conventional Prius by utilizing ‘charge sustaining’ technology for regeneration.

The production version of the PHEV Prius will have a selectable EV driving mode that will be useful for trips longer than simple city driving.  This allows the driver to conserve energy for electric-only junkets.  A button will allow the driver to turn the EV mode on or off.  The production version of the PHEV Prius can also take advantage of regenerative energy to recharge the complete battery pack just like the run-of-the-mill Prius to extend the time the car can spend in EV mode.  This is an important distinction because the Prius Plug-in prototype did not allow full recharging of the whole battery pack – only the third of the pack that mimicked a regular Prius would recharge.  Now, the car’s regenerative mode will reportedly have the ability of full pack charging.  The price of the Prius Plug-in will be only a little more than a conventional Prius making it more in line with a mainstream car.

Speaking of plugging-in, Toyota is also planning to release two all-electric vehicles (EVs) for 2012.  The announcement that the RAV4 EV is destined to be reborn has generated the most ‘buzz’.  As anyone who has seen the 2006 documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? knows the original RAV4 EV already had plenty of hard-core followers in the mid 1990s.  Toyota made the electric RAV4 from 1997 to 2003 building 1,484 of them before pulling the program’s plug after California changed its rules on the zero-emissions mandate.  Their drivers tended to be a devoted group.  They would brag about the car’s minimal maintenance and dependability, saying it was a great car for daily commutes and weekend grocery runs.  In other words — it was an ideal car for urban driving.

Last year Toyota bought a stake in Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors and immediately announced a joint venture to produce the second-generation RAV4 EV.  The re-incarnation of the RAV4 EV is a ‘no brainer’ for Toyota.  The new vehicle will have the same luggage capacity and performance similar to the gas-powered version.  The all-electric drive-train will be powered by inductive electric motors developed by Tesla.  The Panasonic-developed lithium battery will be located underneath the vehicle so as to not interfere with cargo capacity, thereby lowering the center of gravity and improving the handling over the gas-driven RAV4.  The RAV4 EV will have a range of 100 miles per charge and should be a big hit with drivers who require a more rugged vehicle with more cargo space.

At a recent dealer meeting held by Toyota in Las Vegas the company confirmed that the Prius v, c, the Plug-in Prius and the RAV 4 EV were all coming to dealerships next year.  But, the confirmation that an electric Scion iQ was also on it’s way to US dealers next year was a bit of a surprise.  The iQ is an electrified minicar with a range of 50 to 60 miles between charges.  Like the RAV 4 EV, the Scion iQ’s batteries will be located underneath the vehicle for improved handling and so they will not interfere with the car’s 3+1 layout.

The rollout of all these new advanced technology vehicles next year realizes a large part of Toyota’s ambitious expansion of the ‘green car’ market.  That’s just the start of it, next year Toyota will introduce an all-new 2012 Camry Hybrid that has been re-designed inside and out with improved technology, performance and a more refined ride.

Within the next few years Toyota is planning to launch a hybrid version of the Venza and quite likely a hybrid sports car.  To celebrate the expansion of the Prius brand Toyota plans to launch the next-gen Prius sometime in 2014.  Toyota is committed to putting a fuel cell vehicle on the road by 2015.  Furthermore, the automaker is continuously researching next-generation batteries, as well as materials to help make vehicles lighter, safe, earth-friendly and more efficient.  The company that revolutionized the auto market with the introduction of the Prius hybrid 14 years ago will continue to do the same with electrics, fuel cells and beyond.

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