Originally created 05/31/97

Toyota first to show electric-gasoline hybrid car



SUSONO, Japan (AP) - It's as simple and quiet as turning on a lamp - just a flick of the key switches the car on.

There's barely a stir or a sound as the car glides slowly, the electric motor turning the wheels. But as soon as it begins to accelerate, the gasoline engine kicks in.

Part electric car and part gasoline engine, the hybrid system - which Toyota Motor Corp. proudly showed off to reporters this week - is the best of both worlds for a super-clean, economical ride.

Toyota will become the first automaker in the world to mass produce hybrid cars if it keeps its promise to start selling them in a new model, a passenger car, before year's end.

That would have beat out Detroit's Big Three - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - , and local rivals such as Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. All are working on hybrid technology.

Audi, the luxury division of Volkswagen, also plans to market a hybrid car this fall, but production will be limited.

The secret of the hybrid is that it operates as an electric car at lower speeds, when polluting emissions are a big problem for gasoline engines. But it also avoids the trappings of an electric car, which runs out of juice before it gets very far and needs eight hours for a full recharge.

The hybrid never needs recharging because the gasoline engine charges the battery while the car runs.

Drivers only need to stop at regular gas stations, where they will be pleased to learn, Toyota says, they're getting as much as 66 miles a gallon.

Toyota plans to sell at least 1,000 hybrids a year in Japan. There are no plans so far to sell the Toyota hybrid in the United States or other countries, although it already meets California emission requirements.

The aggressive push on the hybrid as an actual product reflects Toyota's determination to be first with the 21st-century car, despite the risks and costly investments.

"Managers at Toyota are looking 30 years down the road," said Steve Volkmann, auto analyst at Morgan Stanley Japan in Tokyo. "They really worry about staying ahead of the curve."

With emission laws becoming stricter in California, and the rest of the world expected to eventually follow suit, Toyota is sure the hybrid is the future.

Toyota's hybrid cuts carbon dioxide emissions by half and other emissions by about 90 percent compared to gasoline engines.

Takehisa Yaegashi, the engineer who headed the hybrid team, said Toyota has applied for some 300 patents for the hybrid.

And he believes that catching up isn't going to be easy for the other automakers. "We didn't merely think it was key to make the hybrid for the environment. We wanted to make it attractive as a car," Yaegashi said.

Toyota acknowledges it will lose money on the hybrid, although it will sell for about $4,300 more than a comparable regular car. Prices, initially a key deterrent to sales, are likely to come down with greater production.

Toyota refused to say how much money had gone into developing the hybrid. But the effort is a sure reflection of Toyota's financial strength.

Toyota posted record revenue of $107 billion for the fiscal year ending in March. It is also doing great business in the United States, with the Camry set to become the best-selling car this year.

During the recent test drive at 1«-mile course in Susono near Mount Fuji, west of Tokyo, the hybrid on a Corona sedan ran smoothly, picking up speed and stopping while going back and forth between the electric motor and 1.5-liter gasoline engine.

Two computers determine whether the car goes electric or runs on gas. The engine never idles.

Aside from bragging rights, the advantage of being first with the hybrid is marginal, as other automakers are also close, said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

"But Toyota is very good and very competent. It's something to take very seriously," he said in a telephone interview.