BEEFED UP HYBRID CAR
Toyota Motor Corp. just unveiled a more powerful version of its gasoline-electric hybrid sedan Prius.
The latest Prius -- set to roll into showrooms in Japan, the United States and Europe later this year -- should get about 55 miles a gallon under U.S. driving conditions, up from 52 miles a gallon for the current model.
"We believe that clearing environmental hurdles and offering an attractive driving experience are critical for cars to thrive in the 21st century," Toyota senior managing director Hiroyuki Watanabe said. "We are determined to make this technology from Japan a driving force for the global auto industry."
A hybrid car switches between a gasoline engine and electric motor to deliver the best mileage. It uses the motor at slow speeds, but the engine when going at faster speeds or uphill.
The car recharges itself during the drive. It spews only about half the carbon dioxide of standard gasoline engines, significantly reducing the threat to global warming.
Toyota, Japan's biggest automaker, was the first in the world to commercially mass-produce and sell hybrid cars with the Prius in 1997.
Since then, Toyota, based in Toyota city in central Japan, has sold 130,000 hybrid cars a year worldwide, including two other models that sell only in Japan.
Initially, people were skeptical about the prospects for hybrids because of other green technologies such as electric cars and fuel cell vehicles.
But Toyota may have won over the skeptics.
General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler AG have announced recently they will be coming out with hybrids of their own -- intensifying the competition in that sector. Honda Motor Co., based in Tokyo, has already sold 37,000 hybrids worldwide.
"Hybrids are growing into a respected market in the industry," said Yasuaki Iwamoto, auto analyst at Okasan Securities Co. in Tokyo. "And there's no doubt Toyota dominates this sector."
Toyota raised the voltage of its hybrid system and improved the battery to give the new Prius the power of a 2.0 liter engine, although it only has a 1.5 liter engine.
The styling is also leaner and roomier than the current model to give what Toyota called "a futuristic" feel. The new Prius will have more power and a smoother drive than the Camry, Toyota said.
The price is still being decided, but will likely be close to that of the current Prius, which starts at around $20,000 in the United States. Toyota did not give a sales target but hopes to sell 300,000 hybrids a year worldwide and expand to 10 models in the next few years.
Written by: Yuri Kageyama, The Associated Press
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