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'Hybrids' the next big thing for clean driving

Tuesday 2 January 2001

Toyota Motor Corp expects "hybrids", cars powered by petrol-electric engines, to become a pillar of low-pollution transport as air-quality laws get stricter and demand for fuel efficiency grows, according to Toyota president Fujio Cho.

The maker of Corolla compacts was the first car maker to sell a hybrid car, rolling out the Prius in Japan in 1997.

The company planned to unveil more hybrid models after it released a version of the Estima mini-van with a low-pollution, petrol-electric engine early this year, Mr Cho said.

"We hope to develop two to three hybrid systems and offer as many models as we can," he said.

The car maker also planned to release hybrids with bigger engines than the Prius' four-cylinder, 1.5-litre engine, he said.

Japan's biggest car maker reported last month that as of November 30 the company had sold more than 50,000 units of the Prius worldwide.

In addition to hybrids, which offer on average twice the fuel efficiency of cars with standard engines, Mr Cho said car makers were focusing on small cars to meet demand for fuel efficiency.

He said the Vitz/Yaris subcompact was the company's global small-car platform. Toyota will begin assembling the model at a new plant in Valenciennes, northern France, this month, mainly for the European market, where the model is the company's best-seller.

Toyota also plans to develop an efficient small-car engine in the 800cc to 850cc range with mini-car subsidiary Daihatsu Motor Co. Daihatsu is 51 per cent owned by Toyota and is Japan's No. 2 maker of minis after Suzuki Motor Corp.

"Daihatsu has the expertise for small cars," said Mr Cho. "We'll discuss this with them and work out our roles."

Car makers are also racing to develop cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, another low-pollution technology. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity with little other than water vapor as a by-product.

"Reasonably priced fuel cell vehicles will be released in 2010 at the earliest," Mr Cho said.

For that reason, hybrids are the best option to meet new environmental regulations.

Toyota, which last year said it would join a fuel cell research partnership organised by California, planned to develop a fuel-cell test-car by 2003, Mr Cho said.

He said Toyota was hoping to work closely with affiliates such as Daihatsu and Hino Motors, Japan's biggest truck maker, to offer cleaner vehicles "instead of forming equity alliances with foreign companies".

As part of efforts to bring those cleaner products to market, Mr Cho said Toyota could establish a fuel cell technology planning division and information technology management division, pooling resources across its affiliates and group companies.

Toyota shares fell 30 yen (47 cents) on Friday, finishing the year at 3650yen. The stock dropped 26.3 per cent in the year, matching the 25 per cent slide in the benchmark Topix Index.