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The Upcoming Prius: lighter, better and cheaper

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The king of hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius, will offer a third generation hybrid drive, possibly in 2008 as a 2009 Prius model according to reports from Japan. Additionally, the new drive will also be included in the rest of Toyota’s hybrids as well, such as the Highlander hybrid, Lexus RX400h, and the Camry hybrid.

According to early reports, the new hybrid drive will offer new batteries that will be lighter than the current generation and will offer greater performance, such as the lithium-ion batteries debuted in the FT-HS hybrid concept.

In recent months Toyota has indicated that its lithium-ion batteries were ready to power the next generation of Toyota hybrids. In the past few weeks, however, rumors have surfaced that Toyota might delay the use of lithium. In fact, the latest rumors claim that lithium-powered hybrids from Toyota are now at least 1 to 2 years away from reality due to safety precautions.

Originally, the 2008 or 2009 Toyota Prius, utilizing the Third Generation Hybrid Synergy Drive – a hybrid powertrain that was predicted to be half the weight of the current Prius powertrain – was predicted to reduce hybrid technology costs.

The second generation Prius provided a significant increase in performance as well compared to the first generation Prius, increasing battery power by 1.5 times. Expectations for the third generation Prius have been much greater.

Thus far it has been stated that the new drive, “will cut prices for eco-friendly vehicles, reduce fuel costs and slash production expenses, company sources said.”

Of course, it is hard to know if all of Toyota’s predictions were based on the belief that lithium would be the battery powering the third generation Hybrid Synergy Drive.

“We will change the battery from nickel hydride to the lithium battery,” CEO Katsuaki Watanabe told Business Week, just a couple of months ago. Then, shortly thereafter, the rumors against such a lithium move hit the blogosphere.

So, what happens to the Third Generation Prius if it is not lithium powered?

Many analysts have noted that once hybrid batteries moved from NiMH batteries to lithium-ion, everything about hybrids begins to change. Thus, if this doesn’t happen, does little about hybrids change?

More important, will a lack of a lithium-powered Prius be a major setback for Toyota?

Prius derivatives?

Still, what does all this mean? Will rumors of a non-plug-in, 100 mpg Prius prove to be unfounded?

Will Toyota offer a NiMH-powered Prius plug-in hybrid?

It seems hard to imagine that the next generation Prius could achieve 100 mpg, without some sort of plug-in functionality – which is a possibility, but Toyota has steadily maintained that plug-ins are not yet feasible, especially without lithium batteries.

Then again, perhaps the 100 mpg Prius will be a derivative Prius, such as a smaller, city Prius. Toyota has claimed that the future could hold multiple derivatives of the Prius, and a larger Prius also seems possible.

At this point there are simply more questions than answers regarding the 2009 Toyota Prius.

Still, at Toyota’s current pace, the fourth generation of hybrids could possibly achieve prices in the same range as conventional vehicles, but offering significant gains in fuel efficiency. Imagine being able to buy either a 30 mpg conventional vehicle or a 100 mpg hybrid version for the same price.

Still, that won’t happen before 2010.

Of course, you might not even have to wait until the fourth generation. The third generation Toyota Prius – by most conservative estimates – should still be 20 to 30 percent more efficient than the current Prius, and if a smaller, city Prius is offered, 70 or 80 mpg might still be possible, even without lithium.

Let’s just hope a new Prius does hit the streets in late 2008 or early 2009.

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