2010 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, 2009 Los Angeles Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
Toyota has sold more than 2 million hybrid-electric vehicles since 1997, or about two-thirds of the world's total. Its 2010 Toyota Prius is the third generation of the car that defines "hybrid" to car buyers all over the globe, and the company has said it will offer a hybrid version of every vehicle it sells before 2020.
But with so much invested in hybrid technology, Toyota has been extremely hesitant to take the next step and offer cars whose batteries can be recharged from the electric grid. Indeed, its first few years of Prius advertising stressed that drivers didn't need to plug it in.
Instead, Toyota has focused obsessively on driving down the cost of its Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which perhaps only recently has begun to break even or turn a profit for the world's largest carmaker. But with almost a dozen companies offering aftermarket plug-in conversions to give standard Priuses up to 30 miles of electric range, Toyota has stepped up its research.
The company just announced it will sell a plug-in hybrid in 2011, most likely as a 2012 model. Whether this is a version of its Prius or a completely new car isn't yet clear.
What is clear is that the car won't offer as much electric range as the all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Ford Focus EV, each of which promises 100 miles. Nor will the plug-in Toyota give the 40 miles of electric range cited for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt or 2010 Fisker Karma, which use gasoline engines to provide electric power for a few hundred more miles after their batteries are depleted.
Instead, Toyota's plug-in hybrid roughly triples the energy contained in its battery pack, which shifts from nickel-metal-hydride to lithium-ion. And that gives up to 14 miles of electric range. As with the standard Prius, though, that is most likely to be available at low speeds, on level roads, with light loads and gentle acceleration.
That 4-kilowatt-hour pack, in fact, is the smallest size that qualifies for the lowest Federal tax credit for electric vehicles, of $2,500. (The Volt's 16-kWh pack gets the maximum $7,500 credit.)
The plug-in Prius (or whatever it's called) retains the characteristic of the current model: Its hybrid system decides when and where to switch on the gasoline engine to supplement the electric power.
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