The Japanese Nikkei business daily reported on Friday that Toyota will launch a Prius-badged hybrid minivan. Toyota is not officially confirming the story—so the timing and any other details should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it’s exciting news for the following reasons:
1First US Hybrid Minivan
Consumers have been clamoring for a hybrid minivan for years. Besides a subcompact, it’s the only segment that does not have a super-efficient hybrid available in the US. At this point, family-oriented hybrid shoppers looking for three rows of seats to carry up to seven people need to buy an SUV—such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid or Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. The Prius minivan, according to the report, will be more affordable and flexible than hybrid SUVs. Nikkei states: “Its seat configuration will be flexible to allow for convenient seating and create luggage space. Toyota plans to keep the price of the new Prius minivan at a level similar to those of current Prius models.”
2Toyota and Japan Are Aggressively Adding More Hybrids
Hybrid Minivan Pages
The Nikkei report says the Toyota Prius minivan will be launched in 2011—without specifying when in 2011 and in which markets. It’s safe to say that the Prius minivan will first go to Japan and will be sold in greater numbers there.
In another report from Japan, the Yomiuri Shimbun last week said that Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry wants hybrid and electric vehicles to account for 50 percent of new-car sales in Japan by 2020. It also set a target to raise the proportion of “next-generation vehicles” to up to 70 percent of new cars sold in Japan by 2030. These targets blow away nearly every other country’s goals—and they focus on hybrids as well as plug-in cars. Unlike other nations, Japan is backing up its ambitions with proven effective policies, such as higher fuel tax and more generous consumer incentives.
Despite having an overall new vehicle market about one-third the size of the America’s, Japan sells more hybrids. Toyota currently offers 12 hybrid models in Japan, compared with seven in the United States. Last year, it sold 251,000 hybrids in Japan, compared with 200,000 in the United States. A Prius minivan could tilt the market even more in the direction of Japan—with economies of scale helping Toyota sell its hybrids globally at a lower cost.
3A Prius Sub-Brand Is Definite
Rumors of an entire family of Priuses, from a subcompact to a crossover SUV, have been floating around for a couple of years. Although Toyota has not made a formal announcement about the plan, reports of a Prius-badged minivan give further credence to the concept. Toyota executives speaking recently have been talking more openly about multiple Prius platforms—and informed HybridCars.com that marketing and communications teams are shifting away from a single vehicle approach to one that includes multiple models and a range of electric-drive technologies from conventional hybrid to plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
4Nickel and Lithium Will Coexist at Toyota
Bill Reinert, Toyota’s advanced technology guru, is among those using the word “family.” At the same time, he openly discusses his doubts about the readiness of lithium ion battery technology for mass-market applications—despite the fact that a growing number of electric cars and hybrids, including the upcoming Prius Plug-in Hybrid, will use next-generation lithium battery technology. The Nikkei report about a Prius minivan indicated that it will use lithium ion batteries.
Speaking at last week’s Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar in La Jolla, Calif., Reinert said, “I’m unconvinced that we’ve seen the end of nickel metal hydride for power applications. Our Prius family and Toyota family of hybrids works well, and I don’t think any of you have ever written a story of the failure of a Toyota battery chemistry.” Reinert cast doubts that lithium ion batteries will provide adequate service to second owners.
The Nikkei report added that Toyota plans to introduce an unspecified hybrid vehicle in 2015 that will offer consumers a choice between nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries.