Toyota downplayed the significance of the electric RAV4 at its announcement last week. It began with a reminder that the last time Toyota tried to sell an electric RAV4—for five years starting in 1998—it was a dismal failure in the market. Toyota sold or leased just 1,484 vehicles, said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA. “Enthusiasts loved it. Mainstream buyers, not so much,” he said.
Lentz said that attitudes toward electric vehicles have changed since then, but the car itself hardly has. It is still limited to about a 100-mile range, like the original electric RAV4. Lentz went on to speak about the hybrid Prius, which came out at about the same time as the RAV4 EV but was much more successful. “At less than half the price and with no loss of convenience, Prius was able to convince millions of mainstream consumers that the electrification of the automobile was possible, reliable, and affordable,” he said.
The electric RAV4 is part of a strategy to address niche markets. “A mobility system in Los Angeles will probably look very different from one in Dallas or New York or London or Shanghai,” Lentz said.
The day after the RAV4 was demoed, Toyota held a seminar in Japan outlining its plans for “eco-cars.” Front and center are hybrids, with a total of 11 models set to go on sale in 2012. Toyota also plans to produce a plug-in hybrid in 2012, and sell 50,000 of them a year. These plug-in hybrids are basically modified Priuses with larger battery packs that give a 14-mile electric range. “Toyota is the worldwide leader in hybrids right now,” Omotoso says. “It wants to maintain that position.”