Three years after its debut in Japan, Toyota's Prius hybrid gasoline/electric car is finally coming to Europe.
The updated European version of the Prius offers improved performance over the model that has been sold in Japan. The new model also has mechanical refinements and color and trim features intended to appeal to European consumers.
The four-door, 72hp Prius can run either on its 1.5-liter engine, its electric motor - or a combination of both. It is 4320mm long - midway between a Volkswagen Golf and Passat - and sits on a 2550mm wheelbase.
'We see hybrid cars as a mainstream product,' said Steve Settle, director of customer services at Toyota Motor Europe in Brussels.
The Prius is expected to sell 5,000 units in Europe in 2001, but Toyota is cautious about long-term forecasts.
Toyota has sold 40,000 Prius cars in Japan since late 1997. Sales started in July in the USA. So far 3,400 units have been sold there.
Toyota dealers offering the Prius have been specially equipped to service the hybrid system.
'Every distributor has two Prius specialists and each dealer should have at least two trained technicians with appropriate electric testing equipment,' Settle said.
Eighty out of 230 Toyota dealers in the UK have applied to sell the Prius so far. In the Netherlands, all 80 Toyota dealers have shown an interest in selling the car.
Toyota plans print and TV advertising campaigns.
'We will have a common marketing strategy in Europe,' said Settle. 'We will not advertise Prius as a car but as an eco-statement.'
The customer profile for the Prius was defined during a pilot project in Sweden.
'In Sweden, ISO 14001 environmentally-certified companies in particular showed interest,' Settle said.
Europe counts for half of the global total of 7,000 ISO 14001-certified companies, he said.
'We also expect sales to rental and lease companies who want to make a statement with an eco-friendly car,' Settle said.
Toyota is also counting on competition from other carmakers with hybrid vehicles to focus attention on such models.
'We would not be frightened to see others offer a hybrid platform as well,' said Settle. 'But Toyota should always be associated with hybrid systems because we were first to the market.'
Honda also offers a hybrid - the two-door Insight that is on sale only in the UK. Honda says it has no plans yet to sell the Insight in the rest of Europe.
The Honda is even more fuel-efficient than the Prius. But Prius Chief Engineer Toshihiro Oi said: 'We believe we will do better for the environment with a volume family model than with a specialist car with limited usage, even if it is more fuel efficient.'
In the UK, the Toyota is priced at 16,495 (E27,235) compared with 17,000 for the Honda.
In most countries, the Prius benefits from lower tax rates compared with normal cars. In the Netherlands, for example, the price incentive is about 30 percent.
Toyota is still negotiating tax incentives in Greece, Belgium and Ireland. In Norway, where car taxes are based on vehicle weight, the tax will be lowered by an amount reflecting the extra weight for hybrid components. The Prius won't be offered in Denmark, because of the country's high car tax rates.
Electronic management of the hybrid system has been refined for the European version of the Prius. Average fuel consumption is 5.1 liters per 100 km. CO2 emissions of 120 g/km are 40 percent lower than normal gasoline-powered cars, Toyota says.
Honda's Insight uses only 3.4 liters of fuel per 100 km, with just 80g/km CO2 emissions.
Oi said Toyota's hybrid system was not developed for the Prius alone. 'It can be applied to all sorts of models,' he said.
Honda has also developed further hybrid applications. Honda's new Civic is expected to be offered in hybrid form within 18 months.