NAIAS Action: Toyota Woos Younger Buyers with Hybrids

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Toyota and Honda must be concerned about the here and now after their abysmal 2011s. They’re still attempting to get back to par with their global venicle inventories and have been gearing up new products they’re hoping will begin attracting Americans back to their brands this year.

But at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, their necessary preoccupation with sales numbers for this month and next month didn’t prevent Toyota and Honda executives from turning toward the mid- and long-term future as well.

For Toyota, that meant, among other things, a heavy reckoning with its trailblazing investments in hybrid automobiles and a rather candid assessment of American consumers’ continued ambivalence about electrified automobiles. The brand showed off its new Prius c — the “c” in the name is for city — a small entry in its growing “family” of Prius hybrids, and bowed its NS4 concept plug-in hybrid that should see the market around 2015.[more]

Honda showed off a new version of its crucial Accord coupe for 2013, which will go on sale this fall. Honda executives are hoping for better reception from automotive media than the tepid reviews that greeted its introduction of a new Honda Civic last spring, so the journalists assembled for the Detroit show were a vital audience.

But in remarks that were unusually straightforward for a top auto executive assessing the dicey topic of the lukewarm appeal of electrified vehicles to Americans, Jim Lentz, president of Toyota’s North American operations, acknowledged the obstacles while reaffirming Toyota’s commitment to the long-term future of a type of propulsion that it pioneered with the Prius hybrid. Toyota also plans to introduce a “plug-in” Prius, a la the Chevrolet Volt, sometime this year, as well as a Scion iQ EV and a second generation of its Toyota RAV4 EV, an SUV, in small volumes.

“Young buyers on a budget have seen hybrids as out of reach,” Lentz told reporters at a NAIAS press conference. “The next three years … will be a critical period for gauging consumer interest in other advanced technologies. Cost and convenience will remain the key challenges during this period.” Lentz also said that EVs’ “refueling infrastructure remains a distinct challenge.”

Despite these concerns, Toyota remains unbowed about the future of electrified vehicles — especially for its brand. When Prius arrived in the U.S. market in 2000, Lentz said, “many of us at Toyota called it the biggest crap-shoot we’d ever attempted. Today, about one out of every two total hybrid cars or trucks sold in this country is a Prius.”

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