Toyota Motor unveiled big plans for staying in front in clean-car technology as rivals race to play catch-up, saying it would launch 11 new hybrids and a rechargeable Prius that may cost as little as $36,000.
Having dominated the hybrid field for more than a decade with the iconic Prius and 13 other models so far, the world's top automaker has won a reputation as the most advanced car maker in next-generation technology.
But with governments tightening environmental and fuel economy standards, competitors are turning up the heat with new technologies including battery electric cars and "range extenders" such as General Motors's Volt, which generates electricity on-board with a gasoline engine.
Toyota said one of its 11 new hybrid cars to be rolled out by the end of 2012 would be a compact with fuel efficiency exceeding 40 km/liter (94 mpg) measured under Japanese test cycles--the highest for a gasoline-electric model.
Investors showed little immediate reaction to Toyota's announcement, limiting its shares' gains to 1.4 percent in Tokyo compared with a 2.2 percent rise in Tokyo's main index.
"The news is neither positive nor negative in my opinion," said Fumiyuki Nakanishi, a manager at SMBC Friend Securities.
"Toyota had a lead with the Prius, but the Chevrolet Volt will likely grab attention at GM's listing later today. Like Nissan's Leaf, attention is also shifting toward electric vehicles, and in the eyes of stock investors, hybrids might seem rather inferior."
Building on its hybrid technology, Toyota said it would begin selling a Prius-based plug-in hybrid by early 2012 mainly in Japan, the United States and Europe, targeting sales of more than 50,000 units a year.
The car, which unlike a conventional hybrid can be plugged in to enable longer-distance driving using only electricity, is expected to cost as little as 3 million yen ($36,000) in Japan, Toyota said. GM has priced its Volt at $41,000, while Nissan Motor Co's all-electric Leaf will start at 3.76 million yen before subsidies.
Smaller car makers meanwhile, have poured much of their efforts into improving internal combustion engines, with Mazda Motor Corp planning to launch a subcompact gasoline model next year that gets fuel economy of 30 km/liter--equivalent to Honda Motor Co's Fit hybrid car in the same segment.
With $23 billion of cash on hand, Toyota is among the few car manufacturers able to spend on research and development across the range of technologies.
"Energy-related policies are difficult to predict and vary depending on governments," Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada told the news conference.
"To prepare for all the possibilities, Toyota will take a holistic approach, with hybrid technology at the core of our strategy," he said.
In the field of battery electric vehicles, which Nissan and its French partner, Renault SA, are aiming to lead, Toyota confirmed it would begin selling a model based on the tiny iQ in the United States, Japan and Europe in 2012, initially targeting urban commuters. It expects annual sales to start off at a few thousand units.
Toyota is also considering launching electric cars in China, the world's biggest car market, with road trials planned in 2011.
Further out, Toyota said it would begin selling fuel-cell vehicles, which are also all-electric but run on hydrogen fuel, in the same three markets from around 2015.
Their high cost are a hurdle, but Toyota said it expected to be able to offer the sedan for under 10 million yen--about one-tenth of what the zero-emission vehicle cost at the beginning of the decade.
Toyota is also working on developing next-generation batteries in-house, an ambition that had been held by the group's late founder, Sakichi Toyoda.
Having established a separate battery division in January with about 100 researchers, Toyota said it had made some progress toward creating a full solid-state battery in a compact package, as well as determining the reaction mechanism of lithium-air batteries. Application of such batteries, however, is still decades away, executives said.