Toyota Announces Plan to Launch New Prius Plug-In in Early 2010

Toyota Motor Corporation plans to begin leasing plug-in versions of its Prius hybrid in the U.S. early next year.

In an announcement released yesterday, Japan’s No. 1 automaker said that the U.S. launch of 150 plug-in models will be part of a global rollout of 600 of its next-generation Prius. Toyota says the new plug-in model Prius has a greater electric-only range than the current model and has been designed to compete head-to-head with General Motors’ extended-range Volt plug-in hybrid.

The timing for the launch has been set for around February 2010. GM is not expected to launch its new Volt until possibly next November.

Like the Volt, the new Prius will use a lithium-ion battery pack, which Toyota claims will provide an electric-only cruising range of about 14 miles before switching to its gas engine. According to GM, the Volt will have an electric-only range of 40 miles before a small gas-powered engine kicks in to recharge the battery. The gas engine never actually powers the Volt.

Toyota’s vice president Takeshi Uchiyamada says the new plug-in Prius will provide superior driving performance and greater efficiency than the Volt. Once its batteries have been depleted, the Prius’ engine will power the wheels directly instead of recharging the batteries.

Upon completion of its initial launch of 600 lease units in the U.S., Japan and Europe, Uchiyamada said he expects the automaker to sell tens of thousands of the plug-in hybrid in the next two years.

Uchiyamada also said that the plug-in Prius will likely undergo a great deal of refining before being mass marketed. Those refinements, he said, would include fine tuning of the technology and design and may include larger batteries for overseas markets where drivers tend to travel longer distances.

Uchiyamada said, “We will see what happens in the field. We may have to adjust the number of batteries carried on board. So please stay tuned.” He also announced that the automaker plans to launch a short-range EV in 2012 but offered no additional details.

Nearly identical in body styling to the third-generation Prius hybrid, the plug-in model also features the same 1.8-liter gas engine and electric motor. The plug-in model, however, draws it electric power from lighter lithium-ion batteries that provide greater charging capacity than heavier, less expensive nickel-hydride batteries included in the standard Prius model.

Toyota says that the 600 leased plug-in Priuses will be used by government agencies and businesses. The automaker did not provide retail pricing details for the new plug-in model other than to say that it will be “affordable.”

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