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Toyota to expand the Prius brand

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

Detroit (CNNMoney.com) -- The Toyota Prius, America's most popular hybrid car, will become a family of vehicles, Toyota announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Monday.

Toyota made the announcement at it unveiling of the FT-CH small hybrid concept car.

Toyota FT-CH

The new Prius brand will take years to develop, said Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager for advanced technology.

The Prius cars would all be unique hybrid-only vehicles, not hybrid versions of exisitng cars, Reinert said.

The Toyota Prius is the best-selling hybrid car in America. On its own, it accounts for more than half of all hybrids sold in America. It is Toyota's third best-selling model after the Camry mid-sized sedan and the Corolla compact car.

Still, all hybrid vehicles combined account for only a tiny fraction of cars sold in America, Reinert pointed out, and more time is needed for consumers to broadly embrace them.

"I think hybrids will gradually move toward mainstream acceptance," he said. "We've been doing them for 10 years now and they're one to two percent, so maybe another 10 years."

Toyota's move to expand it's Prius brand may be a response to increased competition, said Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with the automotive Web site Edmunds.com

Honda recently introduced the Insight, a less expensive car similar to the Prius and Ford has been winning awards, and sales, with its new Fusion Hybrid sedan.

Today's hybrid cars use an electric motors to provide additional power to drive the cars, lessening the burden on the gasoline engine and providing improved fuel economy. Power for the electric motors is generated by the gasoline engine as the vehicle drives.

Toyota has announced plans to introduce a plug-in version of the Prius in 2011. That car will also take in electricity by being plugged into a wall socket and it will be able to drive a short distance with no gasoline power at all.

Still, because of their reliance on expensive batteries, plug-in vehicles are likely to remain a minor factor in the auto industry for the foreseeable future, Reinert said.

"We see them as having certain niches," he said. "We don't see them as being a giant mainstream product like the Prius." To top of page

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