May 262011

We’re still waiting for news of the official launch of Toyota’s seven-seat Prius in Japan. To be sold in Japan as the Prius Alpha, the enlarged version of the company’s now-classic green saloon has been delayed as a result of the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear-power disaster.

This latest plug-in electric vehicle (PHEV) MPV from Toyota is to be known in North America (where Toyota will only offer it with five seats) as the Prius V and in Europe as the Prius+. In Japan, the five-seat version is called the Prius A. Elsewhere, it’s known simply as the Prius.

Since it was launched in North America, the hybrid electric and petrol Prius platform has transformed both attitudes and the roads of the world by making low-emission or emission-free vehicles not just attractive but in some cases preferable to conventional automobiles.

Toyota Pruis - Green Hybrid Car

Toyota Pruis - Green Hybrid Car

In fact, it was announced recently that the Prius had sold more units in the USA than Ford’s popular Explorer SUV. Only a few years ago, you would have been laughed out any establishment for suggesting that more Americans would buy a tree-hugger’s car from a Japanese carmaker than a classic truck from Ford.

Be that as it may, we still don’t have a seven-seat Prius on sale. Toyota has just announced that the US launch of the car has been pushed back to October of 2012.

The Prius V was originally debuted to the USA at the Detroit Auto Show in January last year. It was supposed to go on sale in America late next summer.

In addition to the USA not getting five seats in the Prius V, the US-market model also sticks with nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, an older battery technology. In other markets, the Prius will be fitted with lithium-ion battery packs but this raises the price too much for the US market.

One thing the Prius V does get in common with other markets is the enlarged estate style, which gives it much greater versatility. In fact, the V in Prius V stands for versatility and is not a Roman number five.

Meanwhile, it looks like Toyota may face some increased competition in the near future. Though several other companies have tried to chip away at Prius market share, especially in the USA, the Prius has essentially remained unchallenged at the top of the green-car mountain.

Honda has offered its Insight in the USA since 2009, the car has never really threatened the popularity of the Prius there, despite the Insight selling for several thousand dollars less.

Hybrid cars, whether or not they are PHEVs, from other companies have never even come close to putting a noticeable dent in sales of the Prius. Chevrolet’s Volt is laudable for being capable of running on biofuels but it still cannot compete with the Prius.  Read full Chevrolet Volt review here.

Chevrolet Volt - Hybrid Electric Car

Chevrolet Volt - Hybrid Electric Car

Just today, however, Korean automaker Hyundai announced that it will launch a challenger for Prius market share. Though offering no details of the proposed Hyundai plug-in hybrid, the company says it will launch a comparable automobile to challenge the Prius in the same market segment in 2013.

This was not an official announcement, however. The few details available were provided to the press by an official who insisted on anonymity.

This won’t be the first hybrid vehicle Hyundai sells in the USA, however. The company already offers a hybrid version of its Sonata saloon but the impending Prius challenger should be smaller, lighter and much more technologically advanced.

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