Toyota expands Prius hybrid car brand

The new Toyota Prius V Hybrid vehicle The Prius V is set to be the first new Prius model to hit the road

Japanese carmaker Toyota is adding new models under its Prius petrol-electric hybrid label.

The move aims to capitalise on the green image of the Prius, which even rival carmakers say has become synonymous with hybrids.

"In the US, hybrid means Prius," said Jim O'Donnell, chief executive and president of BMW of North America.

"No other manufacturer sells significant numbers of their hybrid vehicles."

Toyota has clocked up sales approaching a million Prius cars in the US over the past decade.

"We're doing this because our customers told us they wanted all the benefits of Prius in a variety of vehicles," said Bob Carter, head of Toyota in the US.

Damaged reputation

With new models being launched, the Prius brand should evolve into a subsidiary marque, similar to the way Toyota's luxury subsidiary Lexus is widely seen as separate from its Japanese parent company.

This could aid Toyota's efforts to revive sales after last year's disastrous performance, when it was the only carmaker in the US to suffer falling sales.

The weak performance was widely attributed to the reputational damage caused by Toyota's quality problems and the subsequent recall of some seven million vehicles during the year - just over a third of all the vehicle recalls during the year.

'Best fuel economy'

The first new Prius to hit the road will be the Prius V, a family vehicle. A smaller Prius C is set to follow, as is a plug-in Prius.

"As the family expands, each member will be an all-new model, not a re-badged version of an existing Toyota hybrid," vowed Mr Carter.

The Toyota Prius-C concept car The compact Prius C model is under development

In the US, the third generation Prius, which was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in 2009, still "delivers the best fuel economy of any car without a plug sold in America", according to Mr Carter.

This is essentially because European rivals tend not to offer diesel versions of their cars in the US. In Europe, Prius is facing much tougher competition.

"Don't underestimate the differences between the US and Europe," says BMW's Mr O'Donnell.

"In the US, people are impressed with anything above 30 miles per gallon.

"And that's even when considering how the US gallon is much smaller than the UK one," he adds, referring to how a US gallon is equivalent to 0.83 UK gallons or 3.785 litres.

'Fine automobile'

Even so, hybrid sales in the US command just 2% of the market, observes Mr O'Donnell.

"There's been so much hype about hybrids," he says, insisting that Americans would do well to also consider diesel, or perhaps even diesel hybrids, in their efforts to improve fuel economy.

This they will do, according to automotive forecasting group JD Power.

Diesel vehicles currently account for about 2.6% of the US market, though this is expected to rise to 6.8% by 2015 and 8.1% by 2020, the firm predicts.

But hybrids and electric cars are also expected to see their market share rise, to 8% in 2015 and 10.5% in 2020, JD Power forecasts.

So Toyota, with its Prius additions, will certainly be a key competitor in the US market - at least if General Motors chief executive Dan Akerson's comments are anything to go by.

"It's a fine automobile," he reluctantly acknowledged in an interview with BBC News, before eagerly pointing out that "it's not my idea of a nice car".

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