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Prius predicament

While Toyota moves forward with new technology for the Prius, Mississippi hopes it isn’t left behind with the economy

Last week, Toyota unveiled the third-generation Prius hybrid in Japan, with 80,000 of the vehicles already pre-ordered.

Mississippi officials hope the splash made overseas will produce a tidal wave that will reach North Mississippi.

The Toyota Plan in Blue Springs is on indefinite hold as the company waits for market conditions to improve before opening it.

“We don’t know of any effect (on Mississippi) at this point,” said Lacy Luckett, external affairs specialist with Toyota Mississippi. “We hope that translates here. We’re certainly excited about producing the Prius here and glad there’s been such widespread acceptance in Japan.” Luckett said the main facility in Blue Springs is “over 90 percent” complete. It will remain empty until Toyota determines a start-up date, at which time the equipment to produce the Prius will be installed.

Along with a slight redesign of the trademark shape, Toyota is hoping some new technological features will spur sales of the Prius.

The feature getting the most pub is a solar-powered panel on the roof that ventilates the car while it is parked.

“There have been some questions about it because everybody kept talking about how it was going to air condition itself, and that’s not really what it does,” said Rick Martinez, Gulf States Toyota retail development manager for Mississippi. “It basically operates a fan as long as the sun is out through the solar panels. The fan keeps the car the same temperature as the outside temperature.”

The new solar roof package could come in particularly handy during a Mississippi. For example, if the outside temperature is 100 degrees, the temperature inside a car that’s been sitting in the sun for an hour can reach 180 degrees. Steering wheels and gear-shifts can be so hot to the touch it is impossible to drive.

With the Prius’ solar ventilation system, a driver can enter a car whose interior is the exact same temperature as the outdoors. Another part of the solar roof package is a remote-controlled air conditioning system that runs off the hybrid battery and can be activated using the keyless entry fob.

Kyocera Corp. announced last week that it will supply the solar modules for the Prius. Although the company said it already had designated a production line, Luckett said it was still too early to know if the part would be manufactured in Mississippi.

The third-generation Prius has several option packages. Available options a system that reads lane markers on certain roads to keep the car in the center of a lane, a mechanism to minimize speed and impact on frontal collisions and Intelligent Parking Assist, which automatically maneuvers the car in precarious spots often found in parallel parking situations.

“The driver still has to use the brakes with that option,” Martinez said, laughing. “The car won’t stop itself.”

The litany of new technology on the Prius would appear to gird the car for its competition with Honda’s new hybrid, the Insight. Auto industry experts agree that the Prius and Insight, both similarly priced with base models starting around $22,000, will dominate the hybrid market.

Martinez admits that hybrids once had a reputation as cars more focused on fuel economy than on convenience and luxury. The new technology on the Prius, he said, should do a lot to wipe that out.

“Most people think it’s a battery in a box and it’s a little car,” Martinez said. “Some of things we like to point out it is first off, it’s a mid-size vehicle. It is not a compact. It’s pretty roomy. (My wife and I) bought it and we have three kids. This new generation is actually a little bit bigger. It’s actually going to get a little bit bigger, a little bit wider and more powerful, as well as more fuel efficient on top of all that (with an EPA estimated 50 mpg). What we’re trying to get to is where people won’t even notice that they’re in a hybrid vehicle.

“You can get the Prius V with all this great technology and leather and everything else you’ve come to expect from a really nice vehicle. We have a pretty large lead in hybrid technology and we’d like to maintain it.”

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