With global crises from Japan to the Middle East continuing to roil world oil markets, the need for automobiles that consume less energy has never been more acute. Some of the most exciting lab work is being done in the electric- and fuel cell-car arenas; but the inherent limitation of such cutting-edge propulsion technologies is that, at least initially, very few models are likely to make it on the road due to cost and scalability issues.
More than a dozen years ago, the engineers at Toyota took a different - a middle - path. Eschewing radical engine options, they came up with a gasoline-electric mix they dubbed Hybrid Synergy Drive. In 1997, a few of those so-called Prius cars were sold. As of February of this year, more than 3 million Toyota hybrid models have found themselves into garages worldwide, delivering mileage and emissions standards that eclipse their gasoline-only brethren. Emboldened by such success, Toyota recently announced that it plans to supplement its existing hybrids - Prius, Camry, Highlander as well as a few corresponding Lexus models - with 10 more models by the end of 2012. By 2020, the Japanese automaker hopes to offer every model with a hybrid variant.
“Our biggest immediate expansion will be within the Prius family, which in the near term includes the Plug-In and the V wagon, and later a smaller version that we just previewed, the C Concept,” says Prius product manager Doug Coleman.
Prius is undoubtedly the star of Toyota’s hybrid show. Of the 3 million Toyota hybrids sold globally, two-thirds have been Prius models. Of those sales, half were made in the U.S. But the company’s has other stars in the wings, namely the Camry and Lexus RX hybrids, which account for 200,000 units each.
“We realize that the Prius body style might not be for everyone, which is why it’s important to have a hybrid option for models such as the Camry and Highlander, and perhaps others down the line,” says Coleman. He adds that a plug-in option - which gives a car more range in battery-only mode and helps improve overall fuel economy - is “not off the table” for Camry/Highlander.
“It’s important for us to have cars that easily accommodate people’s lifestyles, as opposed to us asking people to adapt to our cars,” he says.
Recently, marketing research firm Synovate released a report noting that few car shoppers understand that a hybrid vehicle contains electric batteries, and a third of respondents didn’t realize the cars use both gasoline and batteries. Coleman says this isn’t a concern.
“In the early days, we felt we had to explain to people how Hybrid Synergy Drive worked,” he says. “But now, we rely on the equity of the Prius brand, which stands for a car you are comfortable in that happens to get terrific mileage and have improved emissions. Our message to consumers is simply, ‘Don’t worry about the rest.’ And they seem to love that.”