Toyota Motor Corp.’s new plug-in Prius threatens to cast a shadow over competitors’ hybrids.
A successful debut of the Prius PHV, which Toyota will begin selling in 2012, may help Toyota secure its place as the industry leader in gas-and-electric vehicles and undermine General Motors Co. (GM)’s prospects with its Chevrolet Volt. Though the Volt, introduced a year ago, was the first plug-in hybrid on the market, its sales are trailing the company’s target. The model has also been beset by a government investigation into battery fires after collision tests.
“Toyota carries the image of being a leader in hybrids and the recent problems with the Volt’s batteries give consumers an extra reason to choose the plug-in Prius over the Volt,” said Mitsushige Akino, who oversees about $600 million in Tokyo at Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co. “Toyota’s new plug-in Prius will definitely have a negative impact on GM’s sales of the Volt.”
Toyota, poised to lose its crown as the world’s biggest carmaker to Detroit-based GM this year, said the PHV goes on sale in January in Japan and March in the U.S., where it will be about 20 percent cheaper than the Volt.
GM believes the Volt is a different kind of car than the Prius plug-in and will appeal to different buyers, said company spokesman Rob Peterson. The Volt can go farther in electric drive than the Prius and offer much better efficiency for drivers with a short commute, he said. The Volt’s electric drive system also provides the kind of soft, quiet ride befitting many luxury cars, he said.
“We think the Volt is a better proposition,” Peterson said. “The Volt is much more refined than a Prius.”
The auto industry as a whole is making a push in to the plug-in market. Nissan Motor Co. plans to introduce a plug-in hybrid by 2015 to complement its gas-free electric Leaf compact. The automaker has sold about 20,000 Leaf compacts since they went on sale on December last year. Honda Motor Co. (7267) has said it will embrace the plug-in variation of hybrid engines by as early as next year.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (7211), which makes the i-MiEV electric car, has said it will introduce a plug-in in the second half of next year. Audi AG expects to introduce such vehicles in 2014 and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. (005380) has said it also plans to roll out its own plug-in hybrid.
Toyota, however, may have the edge. “No other carmakers have a car like” the PHV, said Chris Richter, a Tokyo-based analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. “Toyota’s plug-in has a much better efficiency and range than the Volt, which is much more expensive.”
Toyota has targeted global sales of 60,000 units of the PHV in its first year, and may consider adding production if there’s “ample demand,” said Shiori Hashimoto, a spokeswoman for the company. That’s triple the 19,010 units delivered when the Prius first went on sale outside of Japan in 2000.
GM sold 6,142 Volts this year through November and will miss its sales target of 10,000 cars this year, said Don Johnson, the carmaker’s vice president of U.S. sales, on Dec. 1. GM expects, though, expects to raise production of the Volt to 60,000 next year with 45,000 earmarked for the U.S. and the rest for export.
The Prius is Toyota’s third-best selling car after the Corolla and Camry, and the fastest-growing Toyota car this year, as higher gasoline prices boost demand for fuel-efficient automobiles. Still, the Japanese carmaker isn’t giving up on traditional cars, with President Akio Toyoda saying last week that he “loves the smell of gasoline and the sound of engines” as he introduced the company’s new 86 sports coupe.
The PHV, which will first go on sale from 3.2 million yen ($41,100) in Japan in January and from $32,000 in the U.S. in March, differs from today’s Prius by offering the driver the choice of running solely on electricity. After the electric battery runs out, though, the vehicle operates like a third- generation Prius, according to Toyota.
The car can be recharged using a standard wall outlet at home, can cover 15 miles on electricity alone and 49 miles per gallon on gasoline, according to Toyota’s website. That compares with the Volt, which can go 40 miles on electricity power before the gasoline engine kicks in and powers a generator, which recharges the battery.
The new Prius will use a lithium ion battery supplied by Panasonic Corp.’s Sanyo, replacing an earlier battery from Primearth EV Energy Co. GM’s Volt also uses lithium-ion batteries, which are supplied by LG Chem Ltd. Takeshi Uchiyamada, executive vice president of Toyota, said in an interview last week that the company has carefully assured the safety of its batteries, which is one reason why the Prius took longer than expected to reach the market.
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