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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Toyota Motor Corp. has set a goal of selling 300,000 gas-electric hybrid vehicles worldwide by the end of 2005, but production capacity may be a factor, Toyota president Fujio Cho said Wednesday, August 4th.

Speaking at an automotive seminar in this northern Michigan city, Cho said Japan's No. 1 automaker remained bullish on prospects for hybrids even as Toyota and others invest billions on technology for hydrogen fuel cell cars and trucks. But experts say road-ready hydrogen-powered vehicles are at least a decade away.

"It may be difficult for us to produce (300,000) hybrids by that time, but we have another year to go so we'll make every effort," Cho told reporters through an interpreter after his prepared remarks.

Toyota sold 53,293 hybrid vehicles worldwide in 2003 and announced Tuesday it was boosting monthly production of its hybrid sedan, the Prius, from 10,000 to 15,000 a month in 2005 to meet global demand.

Toyota also has raised its global vehicle sales target for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2005, to 7.2 million vehicles, an increase of 180,000 vehicles from an earlier forecast. Toyota sold 6.7 million vehicles around the world last fiscal year.

Cho acknowledged that a possible obstacle to reaching 300,000 hybrid sales is capacity. For now, all production takes place in Japan, but Cho said the company was studying the possibility of building hybrids in the United States.

"Sometime in the future we might have to consider doing that," he said. "We're carrying out various studies at the moment about various possibilities, but it's still at the stage of studying matters."

Hybrids draw power from two energy sources, typically a gas or diesel engine combined with an electric motor. For now, the only versions available in the United States are Toyota's Prius and two small cars made by Honda Motor Co., but nearly every automaker is investing in hybrid technology.

Ford Motor Co. is scheduled to begin selling a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility vehicle this summer, and Toyota says it will introduce two hybrid SUVs early next year - the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX400H.

Ford has said the hybrid system in the front-wheel-drive Escape allows the vehicle to get 35 to 40 miles per gallon in city driving, compared with 20 miles per gallon in a 2005 Escape with a V6 engine. It plans another hybrid SUV and midsize sedan in the next few years.

Also, Honda is set to introduce a hybrid version of its popular Accord sedan this fall.

U.S. registrations for hybrid vehicles rose to 43,435 last year, a 25.8 percent increase from 2002, according to recent figures from R.L. Polk & Co.

Since 2000, hybrid sales in the United States have grown at an average annual rate of 88.6 percent, Polk said, but they account for only a fraction of total vehicles sold. Full-year U.S. sales for 2003 were 16.7 million.

Toyota sold 1.86 million vehicles in the United States last year - 6.3 percent more than the year before - but Prius sales accounted for only 24,627.

So far this year, helped in part by higher gas prices, Toyota has sold slightly more than 27,000 of the hybrid sedans, including 5,230 last month, according to Autodata Corp.

Mike Wall, an industry analyst with CSM Worldwide, said a key to Toyota meeting its hybrid sales goal is the North American market and a greater acceptance among drivers who still aren't clear on hybrids and their performance capabilities.

Wall said it's not out of the question that Toyota might one day build a hybrid version of its full-size pickup at the company's plant under construction in San Antonio.

"They have a lot on their plate, so it's probably long term," he said. "But that's what Toyota does well - thinking long term."

Associated Press Newswires
Author: John Porretto
 
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