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Toyota unveils new version of Prius hybrid car

Date: 22-Apr-03
Country: USA
Author: Justin Hyde

Toyota also pledged that the technology in the Prius would eventually spread throughout its lineup, saying gas-electric hybrids could become typical high-performance options.

The current Prius has seen sales grow steadily over the past two years to about 20,000 annually, thanks in part to its high fuel-economy and near-cult status among environmentalists.

The new Prius, going on sale late this year as a 2004 model, tries to rectify some of the shortcomings of the current version, with more interior space, better performance and more distinctive styling inside and out. Longer by five inches and heavier by about 100 pounds, the new Prius will also offer better fuel economy, with a combined city-highway average of about 55 miles to the gallon.

"You can't buy a greener mass-produced vehicle on earth than the new Prius," Fujio Cho, president of Toyota, said during a presentation at the New York Auto Show.

Hybrid systems use an electric motor and battery pack to improve the efficiency of a vehicle by adding power to a gasoline engine and recovering energy from braking and coasting. Current hybrid systems are estimated to add anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 to the cost of a typical vehicle, about half of which comes from the expensive battery systems.

While other automakers at first accused Toyota of selling hybrids at a loss, they have begun to follow Toyota into the market. Ford Motor Co. said on Wednesday it expects to sell 18,000 to 22,000 Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicles a year, beginning next year. General Motors Corp. has pledged to offer hybrid systems as options on several models over the next few years.

Toyota executives said the current Prius is profitable at its sticker price of about $20,000, and that the next one would carry a similar price and be profitable as well. They also said they expect Prius sales to increase to 36,000 a year in the United States, with about 72,000 sales worldwide.

Don Esmond, general manager of Toyota's U.S. division, said he welcomed the extra competition in hybrids, saying it would make consumers more aware of the technology.

"We're expanding the horizon of what a hybrid can be," he said.

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