Toyota exec: Maybe it's time to raise a Prius hybrid family

Toyota's Jim Lentz: "Try as we might to ingrain Hybrid Synergy Drive with consumers, what really stuck was Prius."
LOS ANGELES — A family of hybrid vehicles carrying the Prius badge could be the best way for Toyota to leverage its alternative-fuel technology, Toyota's top U.S. executive said.

Toyota has tried to promote its Hybrid Synergy Drive technology as a kind of brand — for example, making it the subject of advertising campaigns. All Toyota and Lexus hybrids carry the badge prominently.

But turning Hybrid Synergy Drive into a brand hasn't worked so well, says Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Now the company is weighing a different idea: lending the Prius name to all future vehicles that are offered only as hybrids.

“Try as we might to ingrain Hybrid Synergy Drive with consumers, what really stuck was Prius,” Lentz said in an interview. “So rather than spend millions more driving Hybrid Synergy Drive on Highlander or Camry, I think the consumer is telling us they like the idea of Prius.”

Marketing similar vehicles under the same brand name also brings efficiencies, Lentz said. He said Scion ads have been most effective when about the brand, rather than individual vehicles.

The same could work with a Prius-badged family of products that could be added to the current five-door hatchback, Lentz said. For example, the addition of a two-door coupe, a wagon or a commuter car.

A recent Nielsen Buzzmetrics study concluded that the Prius name generates the biggest share of online discussion of alternative-fuel vehicles, with almost 35 percent of total “buzz.” No other alternative-fuel vehicle received more than 4 percent.

Not all Toyota hybrid-powered cars would carry a Prius badge. Hybrid versions of vehicles that are also sold as gasoline-powered vehicles would be called “Hybrid,” not “Prius.” Thus, the Camry Hybrid would not become the Camry Prius, Lentz said.

When will a family of Priuses arrive? Sources say a new Prius five-door is expected by 2010, but Lentz would not discuss timing of Prius derivatives.

“There is nothing in the pipeline,” Lentz said. “It all depends on our resources and when we can make it happen. The longer gas is at four dollars, the greater likelihood (these vehicles) will bubble to the top.”

Lentz said Toyota is not considering making Prius a stand-alone sales network, like Scion.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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