PRIUS V to be Offered in U.S. this Fall

 * Prius v to go on sale in U.S. market in October

* Two more Prius models available next year

* U.S. supply of Prius cars now at three to four days

By Ben Klayman

YPSILANTI, Mich., June 21 (Reuters) – Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) (TM.N) will roll out the hybrid Prius’ big brother this fall in the U.S. market, introducing a roomier version targeted at young families.

The Japanese automaker hopes to begin selling the Prius v — the “v” stands for versatility to remind customers of its increased interior room and cargo space — in the United States in October, said Ed La Rocque, Toyota’s U.S. marketing manager for advanced technology vehicles.

From there, Toyota will offer a plug-in version of the current Prius model in the first quarter of next year and a smaller version dubbed the Prius c in the first half to make the crucial U.S. market the only one in the world to offer four Prius models.

“Clearly this is a brand we’re creating,” he told reporters on Tuesday at an event outside Detroit, adding that U.S. sales of Prius vehicles could eventually rival those of its high-volume Camry and Corolla cars.

“The Prius has the highest brand awareness of any hybrid vehicle, making it to hybrids what Kleenex is to tissues and Levi’s are to jeans,” La Rocque added.

Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, has dominated the gasoline-electric hybrid market since putting its first Prius on the road in Japan in 1997.

The Prius went on sale in the United States in 2000 and has sold more than 1 million units, or about half of the global total. U.S. sales last year totaled almost 141,000, slightly up from 2009, and are up 13 percent so far this year.

LEADS BATTERY-POWERED RIVALS

Toyota has 14 hybrid models globally and is planning six new and four refreshed models over the next 20 months, La Rocque said. It is aiming for global hybrid vehicle sales of 1 million units a year by 2015, compared with 700,000 last year.

While rivals Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and General Motors Co (GM.N) look to share the green limelight with their Leaf and Chevrolet Volt electric cars, sales volumes are expected to stay at a fraction of the Prius until the high price of batteries comes down significantly.

Toyota envisions the Prius v competing across several segments, against such vehicles as the Honda (7267.T) CR-V, Ford (F.N) Escape and Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) Jetta wagon, La Rocque said. He said the v, which was launched in Japan last month as the Alpha, offers 58 percent more cargo space than the current hatchback model as well as more space than 80 percent of the small sport utility vehicles on the road today.

Edmunds.com analyst Bill Visnic sees the v model as more incremental to sales, with the coming smaller version as the real game changer.

“If somebody has their heart set on a CR-V, I don’t think they see this vehicle necessarily as a replacement,” he said of the Prius v. “This is not a quasi-SUV. It’s still very much a wagon and people don’t like wagons.”

While La Rocque declined to provide pricing for Prius v, he said it would be a little more than the hatchback, which lists for $28,320 at the high end.

He added the small car version of the Prius, which will be aimed at young singles, will be priced below the current Prius, which sells for $23,050 at the low end.

The U.S. launch of the Prius v was delayed a couple months by the March 11 Japan earthquake that subsequently caused parts shortages. Prius supplies in the United States have dwindled to three to four days of dealer inventory, La Rocque said.

He reaffirmed that Toyota would initially target monthly sales of 2,000 Prius v’s in the United States, a number it is also aiming for in Europe. La Rocque said the company envisions the Prius v, which gets an estimated 42 miles per gallon, eventually accounting for 15 to 20 percent of total Prius U.S. sales.

La Rocque said if Toyota wants to continue expanding U.S. sales of Prius vehicles, it will eventually need to add production capacity in the United States. (Reporting by Ben Klayman, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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