Image: The Toyota Prius V is on display during the press day for the North American International Auto show in Detroit
Mark Blinch  /  Reuters
The Toyota Prius V on display during the 2011 Detroit auto show in January.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/13/2011 9:01:22 AM ET 2011-07-13T13:01:22

Betting that it’s better late than never, Toyota is readying the roll-out of the second hybrid to carry the name Prius out onto the U.S. market. The move is expected to be followed by the introduction of an entire “family” of Prius-badged offerings.

Some skeptics warn that the strategy could wind up confusing consumers. Toyota planners contend that the well-known and widely accepted Prius name will make it easier to sell new hybrid offerings to buyers who have proved surprisingly reluctant to embrace the fuel-saving technology, even while gasoline prices have been nudging record levels.

“We could eventually see a point where [various models dubbed] Prius could lead Toyota sales in the U.S.,” noted Ed LaRoque, the Japanese carmaker’s head of hybrid marketing in the U.S.

Prius already accounts for about half the hybrid-electric vehicles sold in the U.S. As a result of the March disaster in Japan, which seriously hampered automotive production in that market, supplies have dwindled severely.

American auto dealers normally like to have anywhere from 30 to 60 days inventory for cars, but the so-called “days supply” for the original Prius is currently down to around four days, LaRoque warned.

In some ways that could work to Toyota’s advantage when the Prius V comes to market around October, an estimated two months later than originally scheduled.

While sales of other hybrids have actually slipped in recent months, the huge brand recognition and pent-up demand could send buyers scurrying for anything with the Prius badge once production starts picking up.

Initial reviews have generally been favorable for the new model. It adopts a longer, taller and wider wagon-like design that offers notably more interior and cargo space than the Prius “classic,” and a variety of new features. Among them are a highly energy-efficient “green” audio system, a choice of two different navigation system upgrades and radar-guided cruise control.

With the added space and features, buyers will sacrifice some of the original Prius’ fuel economy, which the EPA rates at 51 mpg city and 48 highway for the 2011 model-year. The Prius V, which will launch as a 2012, will be rated at 44 highway, 40 city.

Both models share the same Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system, with only modest changes to the gas-electric powertrain on the Prius V to accommodate its added size and weight.

Surprising some, Toyota decided not to adopt a more advanced lithium-ion battery system, though LaRoque echoes the general industry sentiment that “lithium-ion is the future.”

Time-tested nickel-metal hydride batteries will still be Toyota’s fall-back for the third model to enter the new hybrid brand-within-a-brand, the Prius C, due for launch next year. If the V stands for “versatile,” the next model will be the cheap and compact member of the family, a size class smaller and likely thousands of dollars less than the original.

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By this time next year Toyota will also be readying to roll out its first plug-in hybrid, a version of the Prius classic that will migrate to lithium power.

That offering is already controversial because it is planned to provide just 13 miles range per charge before switching to its internal combustion engine. Toyota’s arch-rival, General Motors, has given its Chevrolet Volt plug-in a 38 mile range. GM contends that is enough to meet the daily driving needs of about 70 percent of American commuters. It allows them to go weeks — even months — without refueling the gas tank.

The Prius plug-in will cover a much smaller fraction of the population. Considering its already notable mileage, it will likely yield additional fuel savings, at best, of under $1 a day. But it is also expected to carry a price tag many thousands of dollars less than the Volt. And it will be bearing that Prius badge.

But is that a sure bet? Not everyone agrees.

“They could cause confusion with the Prius V and C and other models, much like Lincoln has done by calling its models MKS and MKZ and MKT,” cautioned analyst Aaron Bragman, of consulting firm IHS,

The counter-argument, he quickly added, is that, “This could be the new standard,” if Toyota can “build on the reputation” of the original and convince potential buyers that all the various Prii (the plural of Prius, as suggested by owners) are a cut above the competition.

Like many observers, analysts expect demand for battery-based vehicles to be closely linked to what happens with fuel economy standards here and abroad. A recent J.D. Power & Associates study argued that all forms of electric vehicles — from basic hybrids to plug-ins to battery-electric vehicles — won’t top 7 percent by 2020. Other experts have the number reaching as high as 20 percent and growing even further if the Obama administration moves ahead with a proposed 56 mpg federal mileage standard for 2025.

The real winners, Bragman believes, will be the products that stand out, like the original Prius and subsequent models, which Toyota says will only be hybrid or battery-based.

Apparently, others are buying into that argument. Ford has scrubbed plans to produce a gasoline-powered version of its C-Max “people mover” and will launch it next year solely in electrified form, buyers choosing either a standard hybrid or a plug-in version.

“This is our Prius fighter,” said Ford’s global marketing director Jim Farley, pointing to studies saying the U.S. maker needed a visually distinct model of its own that will, like hybrid, declare itself clean and green whenever it drives by.

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Explainer: Ten cool car accessories

  • Lance Shows  /  Land Rover
    If you feel like a little weekend camping alongside your trusty Land Rover, the automaker offers this $185 Drifter tent by Mountain Hardware.

    Cars are fundamentally a source of personal transportation. But once drivers are beyond a Model T level of mobility, the selection of a car becomes a reflection of the owner. Because of this, carmakers seek every opportunity to engage in image-building, which helps cement the bond with existing customers and casts a net to gather in new ones who identify with the image being portrayed.

    One way carmakers burnish their image and engage customers is by selling accessories that they think their customers would like, and by licensing the use of their name on products that flatter the carmaker. Browse a company’s web site or the accessories counter at the dealer and you’ll find the typical items; ball caps, polo shirts, pens, key rings and the like.

    But car makers like to differentiate themselves from competitors with branded swag that really stands apart from the rest. We’ve gathered up some of the best examples of that here.

  • Audi

    Audi

    Audi’s LED-lit, all-wheel-drive-propelled vehicles exude an aura of sophisticated technology, and the company sought to accentuate that with the Duo line of bicycles. The bikes, made by Renovo Hardwood Bicycles to Audi’s specifications, are made using natural, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable wood to construct their lightweight hollow frames. The Duo Road, shown here, lists for $7,460.

  • Bentley

    Bentley

    An ideal accessory marries brands that reflect glory on each other, and that is the case with the marriage of Bentley’s premium English luxury cars and Breitling’s sought-after Swiss watches. Among industry observers, “This is held up as the most successful of the watch and car company collaborations,” noted Lindsay Weaver, director of licensing and branded goods for Bentley, who worked elsewhere until joining the company last year. The most recent product of this collaboration is the Supersports Light Body watch, built to commemorate a 205 mph speed record set by a Bentley Contiental Supersports while drive on the ice of the frozen Baltic Sea.

  • BMW

    Image:
    BMW

    Wheeled vehicles like the 328 pedal car are a natural item for carmakers to associate with their car lines, but this one is particularly ingenious because it matches the style of a classic, and difficult to get, model that appeals to adults with pedal car fun for kids. The parent and the child both get to enjoy this pedal car, for different reasons, and at $280 it is accessibly priced.

  • Dodge

    Dodge

    This one pretty much speaks for itself: the classic red rubber playground ball is emblazoned with the company’s name, rendering it a Dodgeball. At $9.95, customers can easily afford to plot an opportunity to drill a hapless opponent with the ball. Meanwhile Dodge, the company that markets Chargers in colors such as “Plum Crazy,” “TorRed,” and “Detonator Yellow,” underscores its reputation for outrageousness that appeals to its customers.

  • Ferrari

    Ferrari

    The equation is as simple as this: Ferrari = Formula One racing. The reflexive property is at work here, so it is also true that Formula One = Ferrari. The company began selling its sports cars for the sole purpose of funding the racing program, and it is the only team to have participated continuously since the foundation of the Formula One world championship after World War II. A piston from one of its Formula One race cars cements the connection between Ferrari’s racing and sports cars, giving the company an unassailable and unique connection to the Tifosi, or Ferrari fans. The list price on the company’s web site is 291.67 Euros.

  • Jaguar

    Fotomac  /  Jaguar

    OK, other companies may preach excitement, but how many of them will sell you a company-branded helmet? Jaguar encourages its fans to walk the walk, with this $599 Simpson race helmet. This is the distinctive-looking Super Bandit model, which promises effective venting to help you keep your cool on the track. Unfortunately, there is no available Darth Vader sound effect, so don’t hyperventilate trying to make the sound yourself.

  • Jeep

    Jeep

    Jeep Wranglers rank up there with Labrador retrievers as bait for bringing together young singles. Following the typical outcome of such matches, active outdoorsy young moms want to stay active and maintain their Jeep credibility, even if they are driving something more infant seat-friendly than a Wrangler now. Hence the $260 Jeep-branded jogging stroller.

  • Mercedes-Benz

    Mercedes-Benz

    Mercedes-Benz, the company that literally invented the automobile, could easily paint itself into the “heritage” corner as some other companies have done. Mercedes products have stayed contemporary and relevant, avoiding the industry’s retro fad of the last decade. But that history is a powerful tool for connecting with customers and differentiating the company from its competitors. A perfect combination of heritage and everyday practicality is this set of wine stoppers, which are styled to resemble the gear shift knobs of the company’s classic models. The set of four features different colors to reflect the type of wine in the bottle.

  • Land Rover

    Lance Shows  /  Land Rover

    Land Rover knows you want to be an adventurous outdoorsman, even if the realities of work and family preclude much actual safari time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t at least get in a little weekend camping alongside your trusty Land Rover, using this $185 Drifter tent by Mountain Hardware. In addition to some of the typical features, this tent has color-coded poles and grommet tabs, with reflective starter points, making set-up a snap for novices, er, rugged outdoorsman, a snap, even in the dark.

  • Porsche

    Image:
    Porsche

    Jackets and sunglasses may be common car company-wear, but Porsche taps in to its racing heritage by offering these $299 918 Spyder racing-style shoes that should help bring out the wanna-be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner in every Porsche owner or those who aspire to become one. The shoes may not make you a better driver, but surely you will feel like a better driver in them!

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