Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the maker of Subaru cars, announced plans this week to introduce a gas-electric hybrid car by 2012. Fuji Heavy will rely on Toyota, which owns a 16 percent stake in the company, to help with vehicle development and technology.

Subaru B5 TPH Hybrid Concept

In 2005, Subaru unveiled a sporty two-seat hybrid concept car, the Subaru B5 TPH Hybrid. Leveraging its relationship with Toyota, Subaru is now planning a production hybrid by 2012.

Subaru is the latest in a line of carmakers announcing plans to enter the hybrid market. Other major auto brands planning to introduce a first hybrid in the next few years include Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen. The movement toward hybrids, the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, will be accelerated due to higher fuel-efficiency standards and tougher emissions rules recently enacted in the United States. Automakers must meet average efficiency standards of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, four years sooner than previous planned. Europe and Japan are also implementing tougher regulations.

“We will take advantage of our alliance with Toyota,” said Ikuo Mori, president and chief executive at Fuji Heavy, after a news conference launching the revamped Legacy model.
Mori did not specify which Subaru vehicle might get the hybrid treatment. Subaru’s brand qualities—outdoorsy yet urban and progressive—are well suited to hybrid buyers.

Auto sales in Japan and the United States have taken a dramatic slide this year—but hybrid gas-electric cars, such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, have made a rebound in Japan in the past month or two. The Japanese government has introduced a number of incentives for hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars, which have apparently produced the positive results.

A future Subaru hybrid is not the company’s first foray into greener high-tech cars. A few years ago, the company unveiled the Subaru B5 TPH (for Turbo Parallel Hybrid) concept car—a sporty two-seat, all-wheel-drive grand tourer that blends elements of a coupe, sporty hatchback, and Outback sport-utility. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter boxer four is mated with a very thin electric motor-generator. Lithium ion batteries for the Subaru B5 TPH were co-developed by Fuji Heavy Industries and NEC Corp.

Subaru has also been testing its R1e, all-electric city car. The diminutive two-seater, about 20 inches longer than a Smart ForTwo, has a top speed of 65 miles per hour and a range of 50 miles. The real innovation of the R1e could be the car’s rapid recharging system also developed with NEC. The system promises a full recharge of the 346-volt lithium ion battery pack in about 15 minutes or less. Subaru has about 40 R1e electric cars in fleets in Japan, and has been evaluating two R1es in the United States, working in collaboration with the New York Power Authority.