toyota prius plus.automotiveIT

Toyota unveiled the Prius+ in Geneva. The full hybrid 7-seater, which has lithium-ion batteries, will be in showrooms mid-2012

Cumulative sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids topped 3 million in February, underscoring the Japanese carmaker’s frontrunner position in the race to make new powertrains acceptable to a broader public.

Toyota said that on Feb 28 it had sold 3.03 million hybrid vehicles, with sales totaling 690,000 in 2010 alone. Hybrid sales have continued to rise since the company introduced its first Prius hybrid model in 2000.

Toyota continues to bet heavily on hybrids, which combine a traditional combustion engine with an electric motor, even as competitors such as Nissan and Mitsubishi are rolling out full electric vehicles.

“Full hybrid technology is at the heart of our sustainability policy for today and tomorrow,” Toyota Motor Europe boss Didier Leroy said at the Geneva auto show last week.

There are currently 16 Toyota and Lexus vehicles on sale in approximately 80 countries and the company plans to launch an additional 10 new models by the end of 2012.

Though Toyota made no mention in a press statement of plans to introduce a full electric vehicle, it said it will develop other environmentally friendly cars “in addition to gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles.”

But Guillaume Gerondeau, Toyota Motor Europe vice-president product planning and marketing, said the absence of appropriate battery technology is holding back the market for all-electric vehicles.

“We think there is room for an electric vehicle,” he told reporters. “But it will depend on the price of the battery.” Toyota doesn’t see full electric vehicles as a mid-term solution, he added.

Nissan, Mitsubishi disagree

That contrasts with statements made by companies that already have full electric vehicles on the market.

Simon Thomas. Nissan senior vice president sales and marketing, said in Geneva that, three years ago, the market was skeptical it could make a success of its full-electric Nissan Leaf.

“But now we have 250,000 hand raisers who say it is and we have 27,000 customers that have been prepared to put a deposit down to take delivery of a Nissan Leaf,” Thomas said. “So yes, it is viable and, yes, the market is ready today.”

Mitsubishi, which has been selling its i-MiEV electric vehicle for 10 months, is also bullish on the prospects. “Ten months is a long time to gather ideas and we can thus more quickly make the next improvements to the car,” said Gayu Uesugi, head of r&d at Mitsubishi.

Toyota will launch globally a plug-in version of the Prius with a new lithium-ion battery that will replace the current nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) unit. The new Prius will be able to cover 20km on its electric motor.

The company is also planning to launch a hybrid version of its Yaris small car in the second half of 2012. This will be “the first step toward the democratization of the hybrid,” Gerondeau told reporters in Geneva.

Though new models will have lithium-ion batteries, these won’t be powerful enough to help make the move to full electric propulsion, Toyota believes.

“The current lithium-ion battery, in terms of performance and cost is still insufficient, even after improvements are made,” said Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice-president global business topics and technologies.

The executive, who is widely recognized as the “father” of the Prius, said Toyota is conducting research aimed at improving batteries. “We see large potential for reducing the size of the battery, but we’re still at the laboratory stage,” Uchiyamada said. “It will take time before commercialization.”

Toyota will continue to delliver the current Prius with NiMH batteries. It produced 1.1 million of these batteries in 2010.

-By Arjen Bongard