In two years, consumers will have at least three plug-in car choices from major automakers.

After years of taking a wait-and-see approach to plug-in hybrids, Toyota yesterday officially announced its plans to produce and market a plug-in version of the Prius in significant quantities. According to Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada, the company will sell “several tens of thousands” of plug-ins a year globally beginning in 2011.

Plug-in Prius

The announcement comes as other global automakers, most notably General Motors and Nissan, intensify marketing efforts to promote their plug-in cars, which go on sale in late 2010. By the time the Toyota Prius Plugin Hybrid becomes widely available, consumers will have at least three choices from major global automakers for cars that primarily drive on batteries charged at home or work. The top three reasonably priced plug-in cars will represent a range of costs and electric driving range.

The most expensive is likely to be the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid offering up to 40 miles of all-electric range before an on-board engine sustains the batteries charge for an additional 300 miles. The Volt is likely to sell for about $40,000.

The pure electric Nissan Leaf will offer 100 miles of driving range, so 100 percent of its driving will be electric. As an electric car, rather than a plug-in hybrid, the Leaf will not have an engine, and therefore will be limited in range to about 100 miles before needing to be recharged. It’s expected to sell for about $32,000.

The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid will likely be the least expensive, perhaps in the high-$20,000s, but will offer the least all-electric range, approximately 14.5 miles at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. (Previously, Toyota said the Prius Plug-in would have an all-electric range of 12 miles.) Short commutes could be zero emissions, but the Prius Plug-in Hybrid will rely on its gas engine more than the other vehicles—although it will be fully recharged more quickly.

All three of the vehicles will be eligible for tax credits, as high as $7,500. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which will use a 5.2 kWh lithium ion battery pack—compared to the Leaf’s 24 kWh pack and the Volt’s 16 kWh—will not qualify for as high a tax credit as the other vehicles.

Electric cars from Ford, Mitsubishi and others will also be in the running.

Prius Plug-in Hybrid plug

Prius Plug-in Hybrid plug

In the race for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, Toyota will be able to leverage its commanding lead in conventional hybrids. In September, the company announced that cumulative global sales of the Prius topped 2 million units—far more than all other hybrid cars combined. Yet, GM, Nissan, Ford and others recently have taken aggressive steps to take a leadership role in the next generation of alternative vehicles, the plug-in hybrid and electric car. Toyota’s announcement about the Prius Plug-in Hybrid indicates that the company will not easily relinquish its market advantage—and perhaps more importantly, its image—as the leader in green cars.