TOKYO -- For years, Toyota Motor Corp. has put hybrids at the center of its powertrain technology strategy, all but oblivious to the rapid fuel economy advancements rivals have made in the humble gasoline engine.
Meanwhile, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Hyundai, Volkswagen and others have turned to gasoline direct fuel injection and turbochargers. For them, those technologies were a quick, cost-effective route to better mpg. Turbochargers, for example, allowed them to maintain power output while making engines smaller, for a significant weight savings and higher fuel economy.
Now, in a major overhaul of its lineup, Toyota is playing catchup. It will introduce a new direct-injection engine next year and follow with a downsized turbocharged powerplant -- its first -- in 2014. It is also committing to continuously variable transmissions across its range of small- to medium-sized cars.
Toyota is hardly forsaking gasoline-electric hybrids. It plans to introduce 14 new hybrids by 2015. But hybrids, led by the Prius, still represent only 10 percent of Toyota's global sales.
Toyota's latest environmental technology game plan, unveiled in Tokyo, shows it will start doubling down on the standard powertrains that are the backbone of its offerings. And Toyota expects big gains in fuel economy for its nonhybrid vehicles.
"By 2015, through improvement in the engine and powertrain alone, we aim to achieve a fuel-efficiency improvement of 10 percent to 20 percent on the models adopting the improvements," Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota's outgoing product development chief, said.
The rollout won't happen overnight. Engineers are still debating how widely technologies such as direct injection and turbocharging should be applied.
Insiders say President Akio Toyoda, who wanted to make his company's cars zippier to drive without sacrificing fuel economy, urged his staff to embrace nonhybrid technologies.
Moreover, Toyota plans to combine direct injection with its hybrid system to deliver a new generation of hybrids that are all the more miserly with fuel.
Key elements of Toyota's plan:
- A 2.5-liter direct-injection, Atkinson cycle engine, to be deployed first in hybrids in 2013.
- A 2.0-liter downsized turbo-charged engine in 2014.
- A shift to CVTs in small- to mid-sized vehicles.
- More six- and eight-speed automatic transmissions for larger cars.
Today, the company doesn't offer any turbocharged vehicles. It experimented briefly with turbos in the 1980s but chiefly as a way to boost output from already powerful engines -- not as a way of getting more oomph from smaller, more efficient ones. And direct injection is limited to a handful of large-displacement V-6 and V-8 luxury sedans, such as the Lexus LS.
Compare that with rivals' lineups. Ford Motor Co., for instance, makes extensive use of turbocharging, from engines with displacements as small as 1.0 liter to engines in its big pickups. Honda Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp. are overhauling their engine lineups to make fuel injection their base technology.