Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s goal of turning the Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid car, into its top- selling U.S. model with a line of cars bearing the name gets its first test with a wagon version arriving late this year.
The 2012 Prius v, a gasoline-electric model with 53 percent more cargo space than the current “liftback” model, may account for as much as 20 percent of overall Prius sales, Bob Carter, group vice president for Toyota’s U.S. sales, said in an interview last week. The wagon is rated by the U.S. as getting 44 miles per gallon in the city and 42 mpg in combined city and highway driving, he said.
“We know the hybrid segment will grow faster if we add a little versatility,” Carter said. “It won’t happen in the next 12 to 24 months, but Prius will outsell Camry. It’s going to be what defines the Toyota brand in the future.”
Toyota’s hopes of record U.S. Prius sales this year, buoyed by surging gasoline prices, were thwarted when Japan’s record earthquake and tsunami in March disrupted production. Though Prius assembly is recovering, the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker expects to have only 70 percent of normal supply of the cars for sale in the U.S.
Toyota will also add a plug-in Prius next year that runs about 13 miles on lithium-ion battery power before the engine kicks in, at which point the car will function as a regular Prius. A smaller, more fuel-efficient Prius c compact, cheaper than the current model, which has a starting price of $23,520, is also slated for 2012.
“The overall strategy of creating a broader Prius lineup is sound,” said Ed Kim, an industry analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, California. “In terms of how Prius becomes the top- seller, Toyota hasn’t really shared an actionable road map to get to that point.”
Toyota’s Camry sedan has been the best-selling U.S. passenger car for nine years in a row, and its Corolla is the top-selling small car.
Slower production in Japan after the March 11 earthquake pushed back the start of Prius v sales to the last quarter of 2011 from as early as July, Carter said, without elaborating. Toyota won’t provide a monthly or annual sales target for now, he said.
The wagon is 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) longer than a standard Prius, 1.1 inches wider and 3.3 inches higher, the company said. Making the vehicle roomier than the current Prius also added 232 pounds (105 kilograms) of weight, trimming 8 mpg from the liftback’s 50 mpg rating.
Toyota’s American depositary receipts, each representing two ordinary shares, fell 42 cents to $79.54 at 4:15 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. They’ve risen 1.2 percent this year.
The Prius v should appeal to U.S. consumers looking for a combination of high fuel efficiency and roominess, said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com, which tracks auto industry pricing and trends.
“Space is remarkably better. That’s really going to be the selling proposition,” Anwyl said. “There may be some cannibalization with the current model, but it should expand the Prius name.”
One challenge for the model is that U.S. consumers don’t buy many wagons, he said.
“Wagons have become niche vehicles, competitors to compact SUVs and crossovers,” Anwyl said.
Demand for the Prius grows as fuel prices rise, and Toyota doesn’t expect the cost of gasoline in the U.S. to consistently stay below $3.50 a gallon, Carter said.
U.S. gasoline prices rose 26 percent since the start of the year to an average of $3.886 a gallon on May 19, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge report.
While the Prius v isn’t yet on sale, the car is being researched by Edmunds.com users.
As of last week, consumers using the Santa Monica, California-based company’s website who were considering the car also looked at the current Prius, the plug-in Prius due next year, Honda Motor Co.’s Civic compact, the Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback, Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf electric car and Ford Motor Co. (F)’s Fusion Hybrid sedan.
Toyota expects the Prius v to compete with small sport- utility vehicles including Ford’s Escape and Nissan’s Rogue, and Mazda Motor Corp.’s Mazda5 compact minivan and Volkswagen AG (VOW)’s Jetta wagon, Carter said last week at a briefing in Half Moon Bay, California.
Pricing hasn’t been set and is likely to be “a little higher” than for the current Prius, he said.
In a May 18 test drive, the wagon averaged 42.3 mpg in 120 miles of urban and highway driving. New with the Prius v is a “pitch and bounce” control feature that uses sensors and torque from the hybrid system to smooth the ride over uneven road surfaces.
The car is also Toyota’s first hybrid with an audible electronic warning sound that engages when the car moves on battery power at low speed, to alert pedestrians who may not hear it otherwise.
Toyota has sold more than 1 million Prius cars since the model went on sale in the U.S. in 2000, accounting for 53 percent of all hybrids sold in the market. Worldwide Prius sales exceed 2 million units.
“They dominate they hybrid segment,” Anwyl said. “They’ve created a brand with a lot of value, and they’re quite right to leverage that.”
Toyota’s U.S. sales unit is based in Torrance, California.
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