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Solar power endears hybrid Prius to buyers

TOYOTAíS Prius, the top-selling hybrid since 1997, gets more fuel economy, speed, sleeker looks and solar panels this year to outrun a surge of new gasoline-electric and plug-in cars from international competitors.

The 2010 model Prius will go 50 miles per gallon (4.7 liters per 100 kilometers) in combined city and highway driving, up from 46 miles per gallon for the current version, the company said at the carís debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Toyota aims to sell 180,000 in the revamped modelís first year in the United States, said Bob Carter, vice president of Toyota-brand sales in that market.

Prius status as the industryís most advanced production car of the past decade faces challenges from General Motors Volt plug-in hybrid, a battery-only model from Nissan, and lower-cost models such as Hondaís new Insight.

At the same time, volatile oil prices and the recession that cut US Prius sales 12 percent last year may curb demand in 2009.

ìThe challenges for the new Prius will be gas prices and the Insight,? said Aaron Bragman, a Troy, Michigan-based analyst at IHS Global.

ìIf we see a return to sky-high gas prices, theyíll sell as many as they want. Insight is also the first credible challenger to Prius.?

Pricing isnít set for the five-passenger hatchback thatís due on US dealer lots early this year, spokeswoman Ming-Jou Chen said.

Current Prius owners are likely to account for the bulk of sales of the new model, said Jim Lentz, president of Toyotaís US sales unit.

Toyota, which has sold more than one million Priuses globally since the model went on sale in Japan in 1997, last year delivered 158,884 in the United States, down from 2007ís record 181,221.

That exceeded an 11 percent industry wide drop for hybrid cars and sport-utility vehicles in 2008 to 316,013, according to data.

Toyota estimates 2.25 percent of all US car buyers in the market for a new vehicle are interested in getting a Prius, Lentz said, citing consumer surveys.

Bad economy

ìAt the end of November a year ago, intention to buy was a little less than 2 percent, letís say about 250,000 people,? Lentz said.

ìSo a year later, even with the bad economy and drop in fuel prices, our intention to buy is higher.?

The new car is the third-generation of Prius that went on sale in the United States in 2000. Globally, Toyota aims to sell 400,000 units in 2010, Carter said.

New for the 2010 car are solar panels in the moon roof that generate electricity to cool the cabin after sitting in the sun without using engine power, Toyota said.

An optional system for automated parallel parking, previously sold only on Lexus luxury sedans, is also available.

The new Prius adds software to recommend to drivers more fuel-efficient habits.

The 2010 model also offers three different drive settings including ìEV? mode that lets the car go as far as 1.6 kilometers using only electricity from its nickel-metal hydride battery packs.

The new Prius accelerates from zero to 96.5 kilometers per hour in 9.8 seconds, a second faster than the current model.

To aid fuel-economy Toyota gave the 2010 model a sleeker front end to cut wind resistance.

The new carís cabin is roomier with increased rear passenger headroom and cargo space while adding just 1.5 centimeters to the vehicleís length, Toyota said.

Those features make the new model ìsuperior to anything we have ever built,? Carter said.


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