Toyota aims to keep hybrid pole position

New Prius, Honda's successful Insight will go head to head in May

by Hiroko Nakata

OYAMACHO, Shizuoka Pref. — Pushing the pedal to the metal, the machine quickly raced to 70 kph on the short circuit at legendary Fuji Speedway as if it was personally attacking the standard image that hybrids are sluggish off the mark.

It was a cold, rainy day, but that wasn’t keeping dozens of reporters from taking the third-generation Prius for a test drive on the race track at the foot of Mount Fuji.

When Toyota Motor Corp. unveiled the latest Prius gasoline-electric hybrid earlier this month, it had a 1.8-liter engine that boasts better acceleration than the current 1.5-liter engine.

Fuel-efficiency isn’t sacrificed, Toyota says; it’s even better. Important to consumers, the price when the new model comes out in May is widely expected to be lower than the current Prius, which has a base price of ¥2.33 million.

Expectations for the new hybrid have grown in Japan despite the economic gloom, particularly since Honda Motor Co. on Feb. 6 started selling its Insight compact hybrid at a much more affordable ¥1.89 million.

The Insight’s launch has fueled competition in the domestic hybrid market, which has not seen sales anywhere near as brisk as in the United States.

The Insight has sold well since its debut. It took just a month on the market to sell 18,000, more than three times better than Honda’s original target of 5,000.

The developers at Toyota are undaunted.

“Our two-mode hybrid system has greater fuel-efficiency than Honda’s system,” Yoshio Kitamura, project manager of product planning, explained after the reporters had come in from the test drives.

Kitamura pointed out that under the two-mode system, the gasoline engine and an electric motor work separately and the car chooses which one will provide better fuel-efficiency depending on the driving conditions.

For example, when a car starts out and is picking up speed, the motor is more efficient, but while cruising at high speeds, the gasoline engine is better.

With Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system, the gasoline engine and electric motor always work together.

Kitamura argues that the end result is less efficiency than Toyota’s two-mode system.

“That’s why Honda has decided to go with a lighter engine at a lower price” to compete with Toyota’s system, he said.

Toyota has not officially announced figures for fuel-efficiency in Japan. But it said in Detroit in January that the new Prius can get 50 miles per gallon against the current model’s 46 mpg, under U.S. standards, which are different than the way fuel usage is rated in Japan.

The current Prius is rated by the Japanese government at 35.5 km per liter. The Honda Insight is rated at 30 km per liter.

Toyota is also looking to fend off Honda’s challenge by widening its price range with a more diverse hybrid lineup in the near future.

“In the future we will develop a new, smaller hybrid similar to the Vitz and Yaris, to compete with the Insight,” said Akihiko Otsuka, chief Prius engineer.

His comments reflect Toyota’s strategy of producing hybrid versions of its entire lineup.

It’s been reported in Japan that Toyota will sell the new Prius for ¥2.05 million while lowering the current model to ¥1.89 million, the same as the standard Insight model. Toyota so far isn’t making any official statements on its pricing policy.

Otsuka said one target for the new model is current Prius owners.

“Many Prius owners are 50 to 60 years old. They had owned the Mark X and Crown (Toyota luxury sedans) before. We cannot downgrade the Prius from those models,” he said.

Production of the new Prius will start in mid-April and sales will kick off in May in Japan and in the following month overseas.

The new Prius at 1.49 meters has the same height as the current model. But the new version is 1.5 cm longer at 4.46 meters and 2 cm wider at 1.745 meters.

The hybrid system in the new Prius is about 20 percent lighter, but the car’s overall weight is 45 kg heavier thanks to a reinforced frame to protect drivers in the event of a collision, Kitamura said.

Analysts say the competition over hybrids between Toyota and Honda is just about the only bright spot in the struggling auto industry.

“Because the Insight was launched at a relatively low price, and Toyota is going to sell a wider lineup, hybrids will become more familiar to drivers,” said Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center.

“But because of the recession, many people still prefer inexpensive gasoline-engine cars. It is still going to take some time for hybrids to be a major profit source for carmakers,” he said.