Toyota gets serious about plug-in hybrids

February 21st, 2017 by

By Hans Greimel

TOKYO — For years, Toyota Motor Corp. has shortchanged plug-in hybrids by offering just one nameplate in the category, and a slow selling one at that: the Prius PHV.

But Japan’s top carmaker says that’s about to change, with new plug-in entries in different segments and rapidly rising sales. The diversification could start over the next three years.

Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, dubbed the “Father of the Prius” for his work developing the original flagship hybrid in the 1990s, said Toyota is positioning plug-ins as a “core” technology and sees the cars eclipsing traditional hybrids in sales.

“PHVs need to become more widespread than hybrid cars, because this is going to be our mainstay eco-car for quite some time to come,” Uchiyamada said last week at a launch event for the second-generation Prius PHV, which is sold as the Prius Prime in the U.S.

“What comes after hybrids?” he asked. “Toyota’s answer is PHVs. This is going to be a core technology.”

Toyota’s plug-ins will have a lot of catching up to do.

Since introducing the first-generation Prius in 1997, Toyota has sold 10 million standard gasoline-electric cars and propagated a lineup of more than 34 hybrid models.

However, since Toyota launched the plug-in Prius in 2012, the company has sold only about 75,000 of them, cumulatively. And the plug-in lineup stays stuck in low gear with just one nameplate.

Plug-in sales won’t improve unless Toyota gets serious about additional plug-in entries, Uchiyamada conceded. He did not offer details on new body shape possibilities or timelines, but he said plug-in offerings in different segments could arrive by 2020.

“You could expect that,” the chairman said.

The second-generation Prius plug-in went on sale in the U.S. in November and in Japan on Feb. 15. It will hit Europe in March and then be rolled out in South Korea and Taiwan.

Toyota didn’t offer a global sales target. However, it wants to sell 30,000 Prius PHVs a year in Japan, a level Uchiyamada said is five times the rate of the first-generation car.

Toyota expects Japan to account for more than half the Prius PHV’s global sales. That implies worldwide volume of around 60,000 sales a year — still a tiny level. By contrast, Toyota sold 356,560 units of the standard Prius hatchback worldwide last year alone.

But Uchiyamada predicts that while it took Toyota 20 years to reach cumulative sales of 10 million standard hybrids, it won’t take that long for plug-ins to get to 10 million. That’s because tougher fuel economy regulations will spur demand.

“The journey to achieve 10 million units should take less time,” Uchiyamada said. “Because society needs a vehicle like this.”

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