In Praise of Toyota's Boring Hybrids

All global automakers are making big promises for so-called “game-changing” high-mpg cars, but Toyota apparently doesn’t want to change the game more than it already has. This opens up the company to accusations of dragging its heels on new technologies (especially from high-tech early adopters). But it also could be one of the main reasons that Toyota is standing alone in praising new fuel efficiency standards that could go all the way to 62 MPG for 2017 – 2025 vehicles.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which consists of Detroit Three automakers, Volkswagen, and seven other companies (as well as Toyota), continues to bellyache that new fuel-efficient technologies cost too much, don’t provide enough saving for consumers, reduce vehicle choice and compromise safety. But Toyota breaks ranks.

What’s Toyota’s view? “Whatever goal [the Obama administration] establishes, Toyota will be prepared to meet,” said Jim Colon, Toyota vice president. “If it’s 62 miles a gallon, we’ll be able to achieve that.” Speaking last week at the Washington auto show, Colon said the new rules “excite” Toyota, and the company is already going in that direction.

Lithium Litmus Test

Colon’s confidence suggests that Toyota believes that its hybrid technology can be rolled out to millions of cars, and provide a handsome profit. Meanwhile, resistance from the Detroit Three indicates a lack of faith in the ability to dramatically increase fuel efficiency via whiz-bang technology—such as G.M.’s extended-range electric vehicles (as revolutionary as it is)—that might not be profitable for many years.

Toyota has been slow to adopt technology that is less than fully proven. The company has been hesitant to take the leap to electric cars, and is reluctant to make the switch from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion batteries for its hybrids. Yet, the company is testing the waters. It will release a plug-in version of the Toyota Prius, an all-electric RAV4 crossover SUV, and a subcompact EV—all in 2012. These plug-in vehicles will use lithium ion batteries, and in the near future, the company will also very slowly begin deploying lithium batteries in humdrum hybrids sold in Japan.

“When it is necessary for the size of the vehicle to use compact batteries, we will use lithium ion,” a Toyota spokesperson said. But Shinzo Kobuki, senior managing director in charge of Toyota’s battery technology, told Automotive News that Toyota could be using nickel-metal technology for most of its hybrids for as long as another decade. Mercedes, Hyundai, Nissan and Honda all use lithium ion batteries in their conventional hybrids—but these companies sell these hybrids in very low numbers, while Toyota could annually sell 1 million hybrids globally in the next year or two.

Steak or Sizzle

Toyota’s encouragement of high fuel-efficiency standards and its adherence to more proven cost-effective high-mpg strategies point to the same strategy—reducing the price of its hybrids and rolling them out in high volume.

In this way, Toyota hybrids become less “cutting-edge” and more friendly, accessible and affordable. This mainstreaming is already in play in Japan, where Toyota sold more than 315,000 units of the third-generation Prius last year. For that model generation, Toyota cut production costs by 30 percent, and slashed the price of the entry-level version by 12 percent, according to Bloomberg.

In December, Toyota Executive Vice President Atsushi Niimi said the company expects to further cut the cost of the fourth-generation Prius hybrid system by half.
At the same time, it will roll out a dozen or more new hybrids in the U.S. in the next two years—including the wagon-like Prius V, which adds size and versatility to standard Prius, and the subcompact Prius C designed to beat the current 50-mpg Prius on mileage and price. Nothing boring about that.

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  • Matt Malone

    Brad , last year you broke down all the different demograpics , per capita , etc. on hybrid sales for the year. Did I miss it somewhere. It was very interesting reading last time. Anyway , keep up the great work. Stay tuned , is launching soon.

  • Driving

    Looks nice I wonder how much will it cost

  • Capt. Concernicus

    It’s apparent that Toyota knows what it is doing. As it said in the article “more friendly, accessible and affordable” is the way to go. Everyone and the mother seems so focused on the Volt or the Leaf, yet Toyota has sold 2 million Prius’s worldwide. There’s no worry of range anxiety (Leaf) or having to shell out big bucks (Volt) for a Prius and you get great gas mileage. I’m getting 45.4 mpg in my 2nd gen Prius even in the cold winter months here in Chicago.

  • toyota sucks

    It’s ugly and hopefully it can stop before crashing into the wall. Honda has been playing around lately because they are to advance, can’t wait for the new civic hybrid to come out.

  • Anonymous

    Since, Toyota has leadership in Nickel based Hybrids, they will continue to praise that tech. Only when some other company like Nissan with their Leaf or Chevy with their Volt overtakes Toyota, there will be a 2nd look.

    Right now with Leaf having range and Volt having price problems, Prius will lead for a while. After all Hybrid is lot superior to regular gasolene only vehicles.

  • Elliot

    Does slow and steady win the race? So far it does.

    The only risk here is if the Leaf or Volt becomes not only a game changer, but a game changer that sells.

    Even then my hunch is that Toyota could make sure they weren’t far behind.

  • EL Rafa

    Puerto Rico LOVES Toyota as much as it loves JAPAN!!!!

    GO TOYOTA!!!!

  • pat

    Over the years Toyota, a small car company grows into the biggest auto company in the world. It is because its products make sense and it heads to the right direction. Volt is in production now, but I heard more advertisement selling the Breeze than the volt! Both Volt and Breeze will not help GM take back the number position. I think the Prius line will take Toyota to another level of success.

    I have been driving the Camry hybrid for 4 years now and I think the Prius C is just the right car for my daughter when she gradulated from University.

  • Shines

    toyota sucks? -NOT
    My copy of last month’s Consumer Reports has an article – a test drive of a used 2003 Prius – the original model. It had just over 200,000 miles on it. They compared the fuel economy they got on this 8 year old Prius (with its original batteries) with the fuel economy they reported back in 03 on the same model. It was nearly identical. (about 40 mpg city and 38 highway I think). You think these new cars with Li batteries will be getting the same fuel economy after 200,000 miles? Will the cars even last 200,000 miles? This is why boring Toyota leads.

  • toyota sucks

    HONDA #1……. HONDA BUILDS EVERYTHING. EVEN JETS BABY. TOYOTA ONLY CARS eewwwww and 8 million recalls probably more now.

  • Anonymous

    Prius 2003 was Gen-I and it was a small sedan. Yes it gave 40 MPG.
    Gen-II gave 45 and Gen-III gives 50 MPG. Tremendous improvement in both mileage & size.

    Note that Prius-I had only 10 cu. ft cargo space
    Prius-II had 16
    Prius-III has 22 and thats 5 more than Camry.

    Lithium has proven in Laptops, Cameras and Cellphones. It will prove in cars as well. We just have to wait for another 10 years just like we waited for 10 years for the hybrids.

  • Anonymous

    “… and in the near future, the company will also very slowly begin deploying lithium batteries in humdrum hybrids sold in Japan.”
    Guess which will be the first hybrid for Toyota to deploy Li battery.

    “Mercedes, Hyundai, Nissan and Honda all use lithium ion batteries in their conventional hybrids—but these companies sell these hybrids in very low numbers.”
    Ehm, just read WSJ that Honda produces 200,000 hybrids in its FY 2010/11. [BTW, don’t forget Honda’s total annual car production is about 40% of that of Toyota.]

  • Honda sucks

    The civic is sub-standard hybrid it hasn’t sold very well and the new Insitght well was just a bastard clone of the best Hybrisd ever,made the Toyota Prius . I can’t wait for the ne C Prius and the Prius Wagon .

  • Honda sucks

    You sound like a meth-freak that doesn’t have a car a job or a life ! Or works for GM or Dodge ! Get help Meth kills brain cells !

  • pat

    I just bought a new replacement battery for my laptop which is a year and half old. Guess what knid battery it is? Yes Li ion. Now you know why Toyota still love to use Nickel based battery.

  • Anonymous


    Haven’t you read that Toyota is going to use Li battery in its PHEV Prius and RAV4 EV??
    Does that mean Toyota has no idea about what it’s doing? Or Toyota disregard the longevity concern of its PHEV and EV offerings?

    Sigh. Sigh.

  • Anonymous

    I read that Honda is about to release its Fit Shuttle (i.e. wagon variant of Fit) and its hybrid model, in the next few weeks.

  • Anonymous

    According to the Bloomberg report the article cited, in Japan
    ‘ [b]ecause of its high sales volume, car buyers are now more likely to think of the Prius as a “friendly” brand than a “leading edge” one, according to a survey conducted by Fumikazu Kitagawa of Nomura’s global automotive practice. As a result, it’s competing with customers who may be drawn to cheaper cars with a strong “friendly” image, such as Honda Motor Co.’s Fit compact, he said.

    “As the Prius becomes more of a mass-market car, it may be time to think about lowering the price,” said Kitagawa, who polled 1,972 car owners in November. […]

    … Men in their 50s currently make up the core group of Prius buyers in Japan …’

  • Pat

    Hi Anonymous, don’t get me wrong that Toyota are not looking at replacing the Nickel base with the Li ion. As usual Toyota will not MASS market until the product is proven. With their competitors make so much noise about using Li ion battery, how can Toyota not to show the public its also has plan to use Li ion!
    I have to say it is nice to see the competition drives the battery technology leap forward in a pace that like the TV industry.
    Remember the old CRT based TV that had been around forever then suddenly, Plasma, LCD, LED…3D!

  • Anonymous

    Honda Fit Shuttle (Both Regular & Hybrid) : Awesome

    This is just like Prius v.

    Good thinking, they can use the same design, grille, etc, just make it bigger and save on design cost and pass the savings to the customer.
    Every company can follow the same.

    Anyone knows how many units did Fit Hybrid sell in Japan. Is it above Insight.

  • Brad Berman

    Hey Gang,
    I’m scheduled to talk to Honda in next few days to learn more about its small hybrid strategy. For example, why is Fit Hybrid not currently planned for US. This becomes an interesting question after hearing that a Yaris Hybrid is in the works. The Fit Shuttle could also be a great platform, and when matched up with Prius V and Ford C-Max, we start to see a trend toward small but functional hybrids that offer great fuel efficiency at a good price, and lot of practicality.

  • Anonymous

    I’m interested to know how many hybrid vehicle buyers would feel uncomfortable if the space saver spare wheel in their vehicles is replaced by puncture repair kit?

  • greenscene

    Well, Motor Trend in May 2010 dismissed the allegations that the Camry had substantive issues with so-called unintended acceleration, naming the Camry the #1 family sedan. Motor Trend also test-drove recalled Priuses and could not replicate reported brake issues. Car and Driver in March 2010 said Toyota had no serious issues with its throttle and went on to say that you had a bigger chance of dying in an accident of some other cause–usually driver error–than being in an incident with stuck throttles. NHTSA even said last July nearly all of the complaints were driver error, the others being mostly undetermined.
    Point is, the media furor was far out of proportion to any issues.

  • NaturalGman

    Thanks for your sensible take on what will really matter in reducing emissions and dependence on foreign oil. Lithium tech is all about marketing–it’s unproven and will take years to show it’s as reliable as nickel-cadmium. Moreover, it’s expensive. Better to spend less money perfecting a proven technology and producing it a mass scale–everyone can afford a Prius, and as your senior editor showed, it’ll last ten years giving the exact same mpg as new. It’d be better if all manufacturers produced a small to mid-size Prius-type vehicle that gets 50 mpg–that would cut emissions in half and wouldn’t tax our electrical grid or increase output from coal-burning plants.
    Better yet, put out a combination of proven tech–nickel-cadmium hybrids, clean diesel and CNG. We have that tech, it’s here, it’s proven, it’s very cheap. It’s just a matter of the American public demanding these cheap and effective solutions. Thanks for your coverage.

  • NaturalGman

    Mr. Berman, thanks for your efforts. It seems that Honda not bringing its Fit hybrid here is akin to its policy of limiting Civic GX sales and shelving the Phill home gas filling units. Lots of politics, probably. I’m with Hybrid Cars in looking at a variety of sensible solutions, not just the ones that attract attention (like electrics). I appreciate your trying to educate the public about progress on all of these fronts. Rather than shoot for expensive, unproven technologies like hydrogen (which, at the very least, would require billions in infrastructure) and electric (which would require lithium-ion technology, which is unproven, and would also require huge infrastructure), I think the best solution is small cars powered by reliable and proven tech like clean diesel and nickel-cadmium hybrids. We have all that technology right now, it’s affordable, it requires no change in infrastructure, and therefore millions could buy it–making more of an impact on carbon emissions than a few thousand people buying Nissan Leafs, which by the way would increase emissions from coal in most places.

  • Timmy

    When you talk to Honda, can you find out exactly how much they plan to ramp up civic gx sales? Maybe just selling more GX’s would be easier than introducing the Fit Hybrid, since they’re already selling those natural gas cars and it’s already garnered some awards. It’d just be much easier to market, in my opinion. Home filling is also key. I’m kind of tired of Honda creating cool cars and then holding back. If they’re really for the environment, they have to go all out and that includes the marketing side.

  • Anonymous

    Is it true that Prius V in Europe can seat seven?

  • chinaeu

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