Toyota plug-in Prius.automotiveIT

Toyota hopes the new plug-in Prius will help solidify its front-runner status in electric vehicles (Photo: Toyota)

With enthusiasm for pure electric vehicles not growing as quickly as some carmakers had expected, Toyota believes its bet on hybrids gives it a good chance of retaining the lead in the green car race.

“The Prius has front-runner status,” says Gerald Killmann, head of powertrain at Toyota Motor Europe, in a reference to the Japanese carmaker’s segment-leading hybrid-electric vehicle.

Toyota is not the only car company that isn’t ready to put all its money on pure electric vehicles. General Motors hopes that the range-extending gasoline engines it is putting in its Chevrolet Volt and Opel Ampera electric cars will draw people to the new technology.

And BMW will offer a range extender as an option when it starts selling its i3 electric city car next year.

But Toyota has most at stake, given the 15 year lead it built up in new propulsion technologies with the Prius. It thus has a vested interested in playing down the appeal of pure electric vehicles.

“You could say that the hype is making space for realism,” said Killmann. “Hopes were too high.”

Nobody expects electric vehicles, which have only recently gone on sale, to take the world’s auto markets by storm. And all automakers agree that cars with traditional combustion engines will dominate the roads for years to come.

New models coming

But environmental pressures and the rising costs of traditional fuels are providing a strong push to introduce cars with alternative powertrains. Enter electric vehicles.

Toyota led the way with the Prius, first introduced in 1997 and now in its third generation. Other car brands have followed and, by now, most have one or more hybrids among their products.

The market is also getting ready for a slew of pure electric vehicles to be launched in the next two years. France’s Renault has already invested 4 billion euros in electric-vehicle technology and CEO Carlos Ghosn said earlier this month that more is to come. Renault plans to roll out a whole range of electric models in coming years.

But most carmakers have focused more heavily on downsizing engines and adopting other technologies that reduce fuel consumption. The reason is clear: The short-term potential of such technology improvements far exceeds the return on any pure-electric-vehicle investment.

The problem with battery-powered electric vehicles is that lithium-ion batteries are heavy, cost too much and don’t provide enough driving range to let an electric motor replace a combustion engine.

Low range and high cost

Battery prices will come down, says Killmann. But when it comes to providing the ability to drive 500km to 700km in electric mode, he is skeptical. “No battery technology will let you do this,” he said in an interview at the Frankfurt auto show.

In Toyota’s view, pure electric vehicles for the moment are “low-range and high cost,” which is not a compelling sales proposition. As Killmann points out: “This limits e-mobility to high-income people.”

At the IAA, Toyota unveiled its new Prius plug-in hybrid, an evolution from the traditional Prius hybrid. It has an electric autonomy of 23 km and can be switched to highway or city mode at will.

The plug-in hybrid doesn’t provide the electric range of Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV or Nissan’s Leaf, but it does allow a full recharge of the batteries using regular 220V current in 1.5 hours. That’s several hours faster than the competition.

-By Arjen Bongard