TOYOTA, HONDA START TO PUSH HYBRID VEHICLES: PRO-ENVIRONMENT CARS COMING TO THE U.S. FEATURE ALTERNATE POWER

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Toyota and Honda are beginning to market in the U.S. hybrid-engine vehicles, a technology that's pulling ahead of other alternative-fuel systems.

Toyota Motor Sales USA is promoting its Prius hybrid-powered model in a $2 million ad campaign breaking in current issues of national magazines. The car is due in the U.S. next year.

The campaign, for Toyota Motor Corporate Services, is handled by Oasis, New York.

American Honda Motor Co., meanwhile, has dedicated a Web site (www.hondahybrid.com) to its as-yet-unnamed vehicle, scheduled for U.S. sale late this year.

The Toyota ads appear in Audubon, Newsweek, The New Yorker, People, Sierra, Time and other titles through August.

The print ads describe the Prius, currently on sale in Japan, as "the world's first mass-produced hybrid car-cleaner, affordable and coming soon to America." One headline reads: "Two identities, no crisis," with the tagline, "Today tomorrow Toyota."

PRO-ENVIRONMENT PUSH

Marjorie Schussel, corporate communications manager, said the ads are part of an effort to build awareness of the automaker's pro-environment programs.

"We at Toyota have found that people don't want electric vehicles," said Jeremy Barnes, Toyota product safety and environment administrator.

Following disappointing sales of all-electric vehicles, the company has turned to hybrid-engine vehicles, in which gasoline and electric motors alternate to maximize fuel economy and cut emissions.

Although corporate fleet-buyers purchased some electric vehicles, few have been sold to individuals.

BARRIERS TO CONSUMER SALES

The electric car's barriers, said Mr. Barnes, are high cost, lack of driving range and recharging time. But, he added, electric vehicles may become viable as the technology advances.

"We are not abandoning any technology or any drive-train at this point," he said. "The future is wide open."

Honda's hybrid model, now going under the in-house name VV, promises ultra-low emissions, fuel economy topping 70 mpg and a price tag under $20,000, fully equipped. It features a lightweight aluminum body.

Tom Elliott, Honda exec VP, said its Web site-which is giving out preliminary technical data and signing up consumers interested in getting further product information-has attracted several hundred inquiries.

Honda discontinued production of its EV Plus electric vehicle in April after poor sales.

TECHNOLOGY TAKES LEAD

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, said that while petroleum products are likely to remain dominant for some time, hybrid technology has taken the lead among alternatives.

He said hybrids overcome the problems of cost, weight and limited range in battery-powered vehicles.

"The highest probability of any of the things they're looking at is the hybrid," Mr. Cole said.

But being first to market isn't as important as building hybrids that match the convenience and reliability of gasoline-powered cars, he said.

"There's a certain element of prestige that comes with being the earliest producer, but it doesn't mean anything," Mr. Cole said. "The question will be,

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