TOYOTA MOTOR Corp. will begin exporting 20,000 Prius hybrid-powered sedans a year to North America and Europe in the fall of 2000. The car will make its European debut at the Paris auto show in October 2000.
The Corolla-sized car has been on sale since December in Japan, where it is priced at about $15,500. More than 7,700 have been sold since launch, Toyota said.
Toyota officials have been saying unofficially for months that the car would be exported. It debuted at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show.
No pricing strategy has been set yet for Europe, said Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Toyota Motor Europe. He also declined to give a sales target.
After the 2000 Paris show, Diaz Ruiz said Toyota will take 'Prius Experience' caravans around Europe to let people drive the car.
The Prius combines a derivative of the Toyota Tercel's 1.5-liter engine with an electric motor powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The car uses the electric at low speed and switches to gasoline at about 30mph (48kph).
During hard acceleration, such as when trying to hit 100kph in less than 15 seconds, both motors come online.
The batteries are recharged by using the gasoline engine and regenerative braking, so that the Prius never needs to be plugged in. Ordinary refueling keeps the Prius running.
Toyota said the Prius can achieve as much as 66mpg (3.6 liters per 100km) from its 13.2-gallon (45.4-liter) tank, but that was on a controlled, low-speed Japanese testing course. Some engineers at major US manufacturers say they have managed only half Toyota's fuel efficiency figure.
In a one-hour drive in the USA last month, a Prius averaged 46mpg (5.1 liters per 100km) in city-highway driving as measured by the car's on-board monitor.
Toyota officials said they still do not know which continent will get how many Prius units.
'It's a big fistfight between us and Europe,' said David Hermance, director of powertrains for Toyota Technical Center USA. 'It will probably come down to whoever comes up with the best marketing plan.'
The marketing is likely to revolve around 'green' issues.
'Europeans are extremely sensitive to environmental issues,' said Diaz Ruiz. 'But no one is ready to give up the fun of sporty driving.'
Although the Prius is already on sale in Japan, it will take until 2000 to modify the vehicle for other markets. Toyota admits the vehicle has several major shortcomings for the US market, including:
A lack of power when leaving stoplights and passing at freeway speeds;
Overly sensitive brake feel;
An air conditioner that is powered by the internal combustion engine, which reduces fuel efficiency by 30 percent;
Only meeting the low-emission vehicle (LEV) standard as set by the California Air Resources Board. Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda wants the Prius to hit the new Super-Ultra Low Emissions standard, which calls for 87 percent less hydrocarbon emissions and 40 percent less NOx emissions than LEV cars.
Hermance said the Prius will get more power, probably by raising the peak revolutions of the engine above its current 4,000rpm level rather than from a bolt-on accessory such as a supercharger.