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Toyota: Hybrid demand up in Katrina's wake

Japan's top automaker benefits as consumers seek more mileage out of $3-gallon gasoline.

Toyota has seen a rise in demand for hybrid vehicles in the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as consumers seek more mileage out of $3-gallon gasoline.

"At the end of last month, we had a 20-hour supply of the Prius (hybrid sedan)," Jim Press, head of Toyota's U.S. operations, said at the Reuters Autos Summit in Detroit on Thursday. "We no longer count in days."

Japan's top automaker, a pioneer in gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, has enjoyed booming sales in the world's biggest car market thanks to the popularity of its hybrid models, now also offered in the sport utility vehicle segment through the Highlander and Lexus RX400h.

"Our hybrid SUVs allow customers to have their SUVs and be responsible at the same time, and we've seen (demand) really accelerate since Katrina," Press, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said, adding that the waiting list was growing for its hybrid SUVs.

"It isn't that people aren't buying SUVs--they've shifted their segment preference into mid-size and small SUVs, and now into hybrid SUVs."

Press' comments come on the heels of Ford's announcement a day earlier for plans to boost its total hybrid output tenfold in five years as it hopes to win back lost market share in its home turf.

Ford, recently overtaken by Toyota as the world's second-biggest automaker, plans to build about 250,000 hybrid vehicles globally--roughly what its Japanese rival aims to sell this year.

Ford Chief Operating Officer Jim Padilla told Reuters this week that a shortage of specialized hybrid components was holding back its volumes partly due to the "predatory" approach taken by some Japanese automakers.

Press disputed that view.

"I can't imagine that. Last time I looked, the (Ford) Escape (hybrid SUV) didn't have a 20-hour supply," he said.

Despite the growing popularity of hybrids in the United States, they still account for just 1.3 percent of the light-vehicle market, partly due to the extra thousands of dollars consumers pay over the price of conventional gasoline engines.

Press said those price premiums would come down to as little as $1,000, probably in the next decade, as per-unit production costs fall with growing volumes. He noted that a hybrid Highlander now costs an extra $3,800 to $3,900.

Toyota officials said the waiting list for its hybrid models was averaging "a few months," and that Toyota expected to sell around 150,000 units in the United States in 2006, excluding the Lexus GS hybrid and others in the pipeline.

Volumes are expected to balloon with the production of the hybrid version of the Camry sedan--America's top-selling car--starting late next year.

Story Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.