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Toyota resolves Prius concerns

Toyota is to create a network of specialist Hybrid Technology Centres to sell and service Prius, its hybrid petrol-electric saloon.

Around 60 centres, based on existing dealerships, will be open in time for the car's launch in mid-October. More will be appointed next year.

Mike Moran, Toyota GB commercial director, said the centres would deal with all future hybrid product from the company. Dealer staff would be trained to handle the particular needs of potential Prius customers and would take a strong environmental stance.

“These specially selected dealers will have to meet stringent environmental standards in their operations, including areas such as waste disposal,” said Mr Moran. “They will be regularly audited by independent environmental specialists.”

Toyota has ambitious plans for Prius and its hybrid technology. The company hopes to sell about 2,000 units a year in the UK and will use the power plant in other models. It has already shown a hybrid-powered Toyota Previa at the Tokyo motor show.

Prius uses a combined petrol and electric power unit for its hybrid technology. In city traffic, it can run 'emissions-free' using its electric motor alone. The battery pack is recharged by the petrol engine or by regenerative braking so the car does not need external recharging.

Fuel consumption on the combined European cycle is 57.6mpg, rising to more than 60mpg on the urban cycle. The CO2 rating is 114g/km and other harmful emissions are reduced to well under European Step 4 levels, which will not become law until 2005.

The only other hybrid car currently on the market is the Honda Insight, a two-seater coupe which achieves lower fuel consumption but is less practical. Insight costs £17,000, slightly more than Prius.

Prius is a full saloon with space for five adults, a large boot and even a folding rear seat.

Mr Moran said Prius was not a concept car but “a practical solution, here right now and available to the public”.

Although he expects around 75% of sales to go to fleet customers, Toyota is creating a personal leasing scheme for retail buyers who want to avoid the residual value risk. “We recognise there will be concerns over the resale value of Prius and we expect the guides to be pessimistic,” said Mr Moran. “The used car market doesn't like the unknown. We recognise that others have to gain confidence in the new technology.”

Prius One will cover all costs, including maintenance, for a single monthly payment of around £400. Hybrid Technology Centres will also be able to offer used Prius leasing, probably called Prius Two, in two or three years' time. Mr Moran said: “We want to control Prius ownership from cradle to grave. We are committing now to handle scrapping and disposal of every Prius at the end of its life, irrespective of future European legislation. That even applies to the few Prius which will be bought outright.”

Toyota has sold more than 40,000 Prius units since its launch in Japan in 1997 and taken 3,400 orders in the US since June.

The European car has been developed for local driving conditions with a higher cruising speed (100mph), stiffer suspension and better brakes.

Prius will have a pan-European five-year, 100,000km warranty. The list price is £16,495. Toyota is still waiting to hear if Prius will qualify for extra subsidy under the Government's Powershift programme.

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