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Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada, introduced the 2012 Toyota Prius V as it makes its Canadian debut at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada, introduced the 2012 Toyota Prius V as it makes its Canadian debut at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

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Toyota: back in the game Add to ...

Now that the rocket scientists at NASA say there are no flaws in Toyota's electronic throttle systems that might cause unintended acceleration, Canadian managing director Stephen Beatty finds himself talking about something other than recalls and lawsuits and government investigations: new models.

"We're introducing a new model every month this year," he said on the floor of the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto.

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Right at the top of Toyota's to-do list is a renewed effort to burnish the company's reputation as a leader in environmental technology. Make no mistake, Toyota is increasingly under threat from rivals for the so-called "green" mantle of corporate responsibility and technological innovation.

Both Nissan and General Motors have been aggressively pushing their new electric-powered vehicles, the Leaf and Volt, respectively. And at the Toronto show, Ford spent most of its press conference touting the all-electric version of the popular Focus compact, along with Ford's entire "electrification" program.

A big part of Toyota's display at the Toronto show, as has been the case at other auto shows this year, focused on re-establishing the gas-electric hybrid technology Toyota pioneered more than a decade ago with its Prius.

You remember the Prius, correct? The world's first mass-produced hybrid car, right? The one that accelerates and runs at low speeds on an electric motor and batteries, with a gasoline engine kicking in at higher speeds?

"The Prius has become synonymous with advanced, fuel-efficient and environmentally responsible motoring," says Warren Orton, director of the Toyota brand in Canada. "We are excited to expand Prius into a family of vehicles, starting with the addition of the Prius v."

Meet the Prius v and other members of the Prius family - including the third-generation 2011 Toyota Prius and the Toyota Prius PHV plug-in hybrid. You're going to hear much more about them all in the coming months, not to mention a long list of other new models.

That's because Toyota is ready to go on the offensive. Toyota's company-wide effort dedicated to rethinking and reinventing how it develops and builds vehicles top to bottom is starting to pay off, says Beatty. Moreover, the distraction created by some 11 million recalls worldwide in the last 18 months has been dealt with, too. The government investigations and fines are in the past and the scores of lawsuits in North America - the ones still percolating in the background - have been at least slowed by the rocket engineers brought in by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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Toyota's job now is to rebuild the goodwill created with the successful launch of the Prius. That starts with restating the company's credentials as the industry's environmental leader. It's odd, really, to think that Toyota needs to win back the ground the company owned for more than a decade thanks to the 1997 introduction of the Prius.

The Prius, a mid-size liftback for its second and third generations, has accounted for about one million in sales in Canada and the United States since it was introduced in 2000 (the first generation was a sedan originally launched in Japan in 1997). The third-generation Prius, which reached dealerships in June, 2009, has continued the hybrid's heritage of exceptional fuel economy and low emissions, while becoming one of the best-selling Toyota passenger car in the United States and earning strong plaudits for quality by the likes of Consumer Reports.

The Prius family is intended to help Toyota flex its technological muscles, too. For a decade, it's been a flagship vehicle, offering new features to the Toyota brand like touch tracer display, solar-powered ventilation, smart key system with push-button start, lane keep assist, an advanced parking guidance system and LED headlamps. Make no mistake, the Prius is no mere fuel-thrifty runabout. No, it's the heart and soul of Toyota.

Which is, of course, why Nissan, one of Toyota's main Japanese rivals, has taken direct aim with its new battery-powered Leaf hatchback. The world's first mass-produced, all-electric vehicle has just gone on sale in the United States and will come to Canada this summer.

Nissan, in a move not unlike what Toyota had done with the Prius, has launched an ad campaign in the United States that touts the Leaf as a technological tour de force. One TV ad features a polar bear running from a melting ice cap to hug a Leaf owner. The tag line: "Innovation for the planet, innovation for all." The message is that Nissan is the big innovator and the Leaf proves it.

General Motors, meanwhile, is claiming a breakthrough with the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that runs on rechargeable batteries for up to 65 kilometres before a gasoline engine kicks in to extend the driving range. On the subject of Volt versus Prius, reports note that GM's chief executive, Dan Akerson, called the Prius a "geek-mobile" that he would never want to drive during a recent address to the Economic Club of Washington.

Toyota is sticking with hybrids as a core technology even as the company remains skeptical of all-electric vehicles. By the end of 2012, Toyota plans to introduce six new hybrid vehicles and says that all its models will come in hybrid versions by 2020.

That's not to say Toyota is ignoring electric technology. In late 2009, it developed and started leasing a small number of its own plug-in hybrid vehicles with a range of about 120 km before the gasoline engine starts. The model is scheduled to go on sale next year.

Last may, Toyota sank $50-million (U.S.) into the Silicon Valley electric car startup Tesla Motors. It signed a separate $60-million deal with Tesla to develop a fully electric vehicle to run on lithium-ion battery packs. The two showed off a prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Toyota is also hedging its bets by developing its own tiny all-electric vehicle planned for sale perhaps as early as 2012.

Still, at the core of Toyota's offensive this year is the Prius family of hybrids. The question is, how much impact will this hybrid strategy have on Toyota sales?

Remember, Toyota brand sales were down nearly 17 per cent in Canada last year and sales at Toyota's Lexus luxury brand were down 10 per cent. The key Toyota brand lost two points of market share to surging rivals such as Hyundai Motor and Ford Motor in 2010.

In a nutshell, even if Toyota reclaims the crown of hybrid king, will that be the trigger for a bigger resurgence of the Toyota and Lexus brands?

Prius: The heart and soul of Toyota

Prius-C concept
The Japanese auto maker wants to establish the Prius as a brand in its own right



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