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Automaker expands its hybrid family at home and abroad

Encouraged by the runaway success of its Prius gas-electric hybrid sedan, Toyota Motor Corp. has announced that it will launch a minivan version in late April in Japan.

The new seven-seater is expected to have a price tag of around Y3 million (€26,165) when it hits roads in Japan, and the automaker aims to make it available in the United States as soon as this summer and in Europe in the early part of 2012. Toyota recently showcased the new international models for the Prius line at the Detroit and Geneva motor shows, a five seater dubbed the Prius v in the US and a seven-seater Prius + in Europe.

Toyota has unveiled a prototype of the wagon version of the Prius - which has tentatively been named the Prius Space Concept - while a second new version will keep the five-seat layout of the present generation of the vehicle but will have a larger interior, the company said.

The larger of the two vehicles is to be equipped with a lithium-ion battery, weighing 34 kg and situated between the seat occupied by the driver and the front passenger, instead of the larger and heavier metal hydride batteries that are standard in the present Prius.

Both new variants, which have retained the distinctive front-end designs, will also have 1.8-liter gasoline engines. Improvements in the design of the engine mean it will have a fuel efficiency of at least 30 km per litre, the company said.

In the 14 years since the first Prius rolled off Toyota's production lines, more than 2.5 million of the cars have been sold. Sales in the domestic market have dipped in recent months, however, after the Japanese government ended a subsidy scheme for people buying environment-friendly vehicles.

Toyota's sales have also been affected by its rivals releasing their own green vehicles, including Mitsubishi Motors' iMieV and Nissan Motors' fast-selling Leaf, both of which use plug-in electric power as their fuel.
The Prius was the best-selling car in Japan for 19 straight months until December of last year, but lost top spot to Honda Motor Co.'s Fit subcompact in January.

Honda is similarly about to unveil its own hybrid station wagon, the Fit Shuttle, on March 17, and setting the scene for a battle for market share between the two companies.