Green Update–>Moving Beyond the Prius

September 28th, 2010

Toyota A-BAT concept

As the boys at Toyota have learned, you’ve got to run just to keep your place in line (or something like that). In the hybrid marketplace, they have had a great advantage by being first with the Prius, for many the symbol of green transport.

But the competition has certainly not been idle, and so, with the speed of a turning battleship, Toyota is finally moving to meet it. Whether it can still lead the fleet is the big question. The indications to me are that it’s coming with too little too late.

First, the company is floating rumors of redesigns and additions to the Prius, like the A-BAT (above), which the company calls a “parcel carrier,” not a truck. The concept, first shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007, will be based on the Prius and may have to be produced in the U.S. because of a 1963 tariff (the “chicken tax“) on light trucks.

If it takes Toyota 3 years to think about producing a concept, how about the 47 years that Congress has been hamstringing truck imports? Anyhow, the A-BAT shows some fresh, albeit three-year-old, thinking at Toyota. There are also some California spy photos of a Prius-based minivan, supposedly called the Alpha.

The company may finally produce a coupe version of the Prius, reportedly to sport some kind of Italian-designed coachwork and compete with the Honda CR-Z in the 2012 model year. The Prius line will get redesigned altogether in 2015.

The plug-in Prius is getting a worldwide test of 600 cars (150 for the U.S.). Launch of that hybrid has been postponed until May or June of 2012. The current car goes only about 14 miles per full charge, and it’s a big question whether it could challenge the Volt and the Leaf. Both will have been on sale for 18 months before Toyota takes them on.

Lotus Elite Hybrid teaserAs we reported, the company is reviving the RAV4-EV, but the same competitors will be in the field. Because Toyota is behind in its battery technology, it had to partner with Tesla to produce more-functional, longer-range batteries for the RAV4.

Given the state of the playing field, the company has no choice but to move ahead and improve its hybrid technology. But, lest we give you the wrong impression, Toyota is still the leader at this point. It will supply a hybrid drivetrain to Lotus as an option for the new Elite supercar (right) due in 2014. And it is in talks with Subaru and Mazda to sell hybrid power to them.

Are we selling Toyota short on its hybrid capabilities? After all, the company has sold some 2.68 million hybrids, it says, since August 1997.

—jgoods

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