After taking a decade to sell its first 1 million gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles worldwide, Toyota Motor (TM) now says it plans to sell 1 million a year within a few years.
At the same time, the big automaker appears to be backing away from a pledge made a few years ago that hybrid powertrains would be available as options on nearly every one of its U.S. vehicles by 2010.
"The right car, at the right place, at the right time, in accordance with energy trends," said Mira Sleilati, spokeswoman at Toyota Motor North America, the automaker's holding company. Her comment was via e-mail, in response to questions about Toyota's alternative-power vehicles.
"Hybrid technology is our core technology, and we will double our hybrid lineup. At the same time, we are accelerating the pace of our efforts to achieve annual sales of 1 million units in the early part of the 2010s," she said in the e-mail.
That would be less ambitious than promised in October 2003 at the Tarrytown, N.Y., briefing on the redesigned Prius hybrid.
Doubling the U.S. hybrid line would result in 12 hybrids, just one-third the 35 total models sold by Toyota's namesake brand, its Lexus luxury brand and its Scion youth brand — and not until after the 2010 date promised at the 2003 briefing.
How does that amount to "accelerating the pace" of hybrid launches? Sleilati wouldn't explain: "We, on behalf of TMC (Toyota Motor Corp., the Japanese parent company) are unable to provide any additional comment beyond this, particularly in regards to product planning or timing."
Regardless, Toyota would be the most ambitious hybrid marketer at a time that $3 gasoline has made fuel-saving hybrids popular in America.
Sales of gasoline-electric hybrids should boom 226% to 854,000 in 2011 from 262,000 last year, according to a forecast by J.D. Power and Associates. "If gas prices stay high, the sky's the limit," says J.D. Power spokesman John Tews.
The USA, in fact, is the biggest hybrid market. It accounted for 163,000 of Toyota's 313,000 total hybrid sales last year, or 52%. And the USA accounted for about 57% of the first 1 million worldwide sales, which Toyota announced last week.
The automaker introduced its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid in Japan in 1997 and in the USA in 2000. It now also sells hybrid versions of the Camry sedan and Highlander SUV and of the Lexus LS and GS sedans and RX SUV. Honda (HMC), Ford Motor (F), General Motors (GM) and Nissan (NSANY) also offer hybrids, though sales lag behind Toyota substantially.
Fuel economy is the main selling point. Toyota's Camry hybrid is rated 34 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving under 2008 federal rules vs. 25 mpg for the highest-rated gasoline Camry.
Toyota also says it is mulling diesel-power passenger vehicles and expects to announce those plans, if any, next month. Rival Honda plans U.S. diesel cars in 2009.