In 1997 Toyota surprised the world by launching a passenger car that used the help of an electric motor to improve its performances and reduce the consumption. It gave the name "hybrid" to this mixture of two on board energy genders.

The clumsy looks of the Prius I and the dull driving experience it offered failed to impress the media and the public but little did we all know it would change the automotive industry in the decades to come. 18 years and 8 million sales down the road there are several kinds of hybrid vehicles and the majority of manufacturers have at least one to offer in their line-ups.

The Japanese giant company did not hit gold on the first try. Sales picked up slowly and even Toyota admits that it lost money for each Prius sold at least until the 2rdgeneration was launched, in 2005. It took years to break even but this was seen as an investment in the hybrid synergy drive (HSD), the common label of all the Toyota and Lexus vehicles combining an ICE with an electric motor fed by a powerful battery.

Almost two decades later things seem to have changed and it seems that the "dare to succeed" spirit that gave birth to the Prius is absent from Toyota´s leadership. Why? Three reasons, really.

1- the HSD system is still relying on nickel metal hydride batteries and hasn´t upgraded to lithium ion, allegedly because lithium ion has a reputation to degenerate faster. Is Toyota implying all other OEMs don´t know what they are doing by using more a more powerful chemistry in their batteries?

2- Both Toyota and Lexus are using the same common modular hybrid system... but if the former is a mainstream manufacturer and the latter a premium one, shouldn´t there be some differentiation regarding the technologies behind the hybrid vehicles. Could lithium ion or even plug-in hybrid represent the plus a premium costumer expects to get, just in the same way there is a step between a 4 and a 6 cylinder ICE engine?

3- Isn´t it time to launch a plug-in hybrid Lexus to offer better performances (both dynamic and environmental) and not let the German premium rivals get away with the benefit of dominating the PHV market as it grows in the next 5 years? Why wait until demand rises by itself? Why not use the same push-pull strategy that made the Prius an icon and established Toyota as the inventor of the hybrid car? Ultimately, why wait until the cost of kWh and the arrival of inductive charging allow to make a business case out of PHVs if this far too conservative approach is the opposite strategy of the thinking behind the dedicated engineers and the bold executives Toyota had back in the early 90s?

Note: In 2014 the best-selling PHV in Europe (Mitsubishi Outlander PHV) sold 20 000 units, almost 1/3 of the sales volume of the number one hybrid model (Toyota Auris Hybrid). Which is a remarkable number.True most of these sales were subsidized, but this is a clear indication that when cost is no longer an issue and when more convenient widespread wireless charging is a reality (expected to happen by 2020 and beyond) the consumer will play his part in making PHV mainstream? Yes Toyota has a PHV Prius that has not been welcomed in the market but because it fails to deliver the performances it should (less than 30 km EV driving range) and also the Toyota customer is not ready to pay for the premium price which would be acceptable on a Lexus product.

Joaquim Oliveira

Joaquim Oliveira

European Car of the Year Jury Member

Feb. 5, 2016 Columns › Joaquim Oliveira photo: Toyota

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