Toyota Raises Hybrid Profile With a Lexus Luxury SUV

Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp. raised the bar Tuesday in the battle for the emerging gas-electric hybrid market, introducing the first luxury sport utility vehicle with hybrid technology that the Japanese automaker said was the most advanced in the industry.

The hybrid version of the Lexus RX 330 will hit the marketplace late next year as a 2005 model and, according to Toyota, provide not only fuel economy and low emissions but also power and performance that are superior to its conventional counterpart.

"This is a case of having dessert with no calories," said Jim Press, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA, the company's U.S. sales and distribution arm.

Toyota's announcement, which was cheered by environmentalists, came at the North American International Auto Show here a day after General Motors Corp. said it would launch as many as 12 hybrid models over the next five years, spanning all of its most popular product lines from full-size pickups and SUVs to mid-size passenger cars.

GM said it would be able to deliver more than 1 million hybrids a year if consumer demand exists, although none of the models initially identified by the company is a luxury vehicle.

"The hybrid was never intended to be simply an economy car technology, and for Toyota to put it on a luxury SUV is just huge," said Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal in San Luis Obispo and a consultant to the auto industry on environmental issues. "They would not put it on such a prominent model unless they expect it to be successful."

Toyota and Honda, which have been leaders in bringing hybrid vehicles to consumers, each sell about 20,000 five-passenger compact hybrids annually, many of them in California. The state is a major target market for hybrids because of its strict air pollution laws.

Toyota President Fujio Cho said at a news conference here that his company expects to sell at least 300,000 hybrid vehicles a year worldwide by 2005. Most other major automakers are planning to launch their own hybrids over the next few years.

Carlos Ghosn, president and chief executive of Nissan Motor Co., said in an interview Tuesday that his company's U.S. unit, Gardena-based Nissan North America, will introduce a hybrid within a few years that will use technology jointly developed with Toyota. The two companies ended decades of "competitive animosity" last year with the signing of their hybrid technology development pact, Ghosn said.

The drive for hybrids, which typically augment a conventional internal combustion engine with an electric propulsion system, was prompted largely by California's demand a decade ago for automakers to begin providing ultra-low-emission vehicles to help reduce the state's air pollution.

Interest in the auto industry and among consumers has increased in recent years as the first models have appeared and as political and public pressure for cleaner air and reduced dependence on oil has grown.

Hybrids can boost fuel economy 10% to 50%, depending on the type of system used.

Press of Toyota said the system to be used in the RX 330 will give the five-passenger SUV the performance of a V-8 engine with the gas economy of the Echo. The Toyota Echo subcompact gets about 35 miles per gallon.

The conventional RX 330, powered by a 3.3-liter V-6, will get about 24 mpg on the highway, the company said. If the hybrid could get 30 mpg, that would represent a 25% improvement.

The Lexus RX 330 is a 2004 model that was introduced Sunday at the Detroit auto show as replacement this year for the 5-year-old RX 300, the nation's best-selling luxury SUV.

Toyota's all-wheel-drive hybrid system on the RX 330 will use an electric motor to drive the rear wheels and a second electric motor to augment the V-6 gas engine, providing power to the front wheels and electric-only propulsion at low speeds.

The system eliminates the conventional rear differential gears, drive shaft and all-wheel-drive transfer case, saving weight and helping keep costs in line, said Dave Hermance, chief engineer for the environmental engineering section of Toyota Technical Center USA in Torrance.

Toyota has not set a price for the hybrid RX 330, but has said the conventional version will start at about $35,000. The hybrid probably would sell for a few thousand dollars more.

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