Lexus to offer 9 hybrid lines by 2014

williamsen-2The Center for Automotive Research (CAR), defined by Wikipedia as “a nonprofit research organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan that conducts research, forecasts trends, develops new methodologies, and advises on public policy” is probably best known among industry geeks like yours truly for its annual Management Briefing Seminars, “an annual gathering of more than 900 auto industry, academic and government leaders addressing critical issues and emerging trends in an inviting atmosphere designed to build relationships” (again, per Wikipedia). Although dismissed by Autoextremist Peter DeLorenzo in his Tuesday 6 August 2013 Rants as “a self-important event that provides a forum for people from the auto industry who talk too much without really having anything substantive to say (that is full of) searing hot air generated by all of the pontificating going on”, it will, on occasion, produce interesting revelations of substance. Case in point: an address during this year’s Designing for Technology session at the Management Briefing Seminars by national manager of strategic education support for Lexus International Paul Williamsen (pictured above).

If Mr. Williamsen’s name sounds familiar, it’s because it was he who provided us with definitive information (not to mention a very handy rendering) on the Aisin AZ6-derived TL70 manual transmission that graces the Subaru BRZ and its Toyota-badged stablemates back in April 2012. As reported by Christie Schweinsberg of WardsAuto, Paul Williamsen noted that

Lexus…now is planning to offer nine hybrid nameplates worldwide in 2014, rather than the eight models it said were planned during last year’s New York auto show…

Lexus already offers the hybrid ES, as well as hybrid versions of its IS, GS and LS sedans and RX cross/utility vehicle. The brand also sells the CT 200h dedicated hybrid.

Lexus offers a total of nine nameplates across its range, but it’s unlikely the GX and LX SUVs in their current form would receive hybrid variants, as such versions of competing models have not sold well.

General Motors is blaming poor sales for the phaseout of its Cadillac Escalade SUV hybrid after the ’13 model year. WardsAuto engine-installation data shows just 3% of all Escalades built for the ’12 model year were hybrids

Agreed on the 6 hybrid lines noted above and the high unlikelihood of GX and LX hybrids appearing next year (especially after the collapse of the Ford/Toyota truck hybrid collaboration), but what are the other 3 hybrid lines available by the end of calendar year 2014? Surprisingly enough, Ms. Schweinsberg, a well-regarded journalist whose review of the 2nd-gen Lexus IS won a Detroit Press Club Foundation International Wheels Award in the General Interest Magazine/Special Interest Publication Product Review category in 2006, dropped the ball here, vaguely suggesting that

Lexus’ still-to-be-named hybrids could be all-new models, such as a production version of the LF-LC concept from the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A Lexus official confirmed to WardsAuto in March the vehicle was bound for showrooms to satisfy consumer demand.

Other media reports have said the Lexus LF-CC concept is marked to become a production model, with a variation of the GS 300h hybrid’s powertrain.

Nay on the first one (we don’t see a production version of LF-LC debuting next year), yay on the second (but we know it will bear the RC moniker in production). In fact, press reports have suggested that the RC 350 and a companion RC 300h (or, possibly, RC 450h) will debut at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show in late November of this year, followed by a V8 RC F in January 2014 at the Detroit Auto Show. The eighth Lexus hybrid? The trademarked NX 300h, the RAV4-derived sub-RX Lexus crossover that is rumored to appear as an LF-NX concept predictor at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, followed by the production version debut at the March 2014 Geneva Motor Show. And the ninth and final Lexus hybrid? The not-so-new HS 250h which, although discontinued in North America, carries on in Japan, complete with spindle grill mid-life facelift.

An expanded motorsports role for Lexus?
Beyond the “guess the 9 hybrids” riddle and a recap of recent new artistic and media initiatives, what this author sees as, by far, the most significant and far-reaching comments by Mr. Williamsen are that

He also hints Lexus will be expanding its role within motorsports, citing the 2012 and 2013 entries of the IS-F in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb challenge as a good sign that racing will become a bigger part of Lexus’ future.

“In the premium luxury segment, there is a strong motivation among buyers to pay attention to performance,” Williamsen says, noting greater motorsports participation could be an important selling tool for distributors and dealers.

Amen and hallelujah to that, but what form would this initiative take? And what series to compete in? Discussing where Lexus has been in the past in motorsports and where it could go in the future sounds like an article that could easily eclipse our last major treatise on the subject, the 3743-word Toyota returns to Le Mans and World Endurance Racing! as the longest article ever to appear on Kaizen Factor. Thus, we’ll leave that discussion for another day…

The upcoming 3rd-gen Toyota Harrier: it’s NOT a preview of the 4th-gen Lexus RX

Toyota Harrier 1
A bare-bones Japanese language Toyota news release linking to a page on the Toyota Japan website promising a new Harrier crossover SUV in winter 2013 led to a stream of predictions that we were looking at the 4th-generation of the Lexus RX – minus the spindle grille – based on the historic relation between the two models. And this was no mere shadowy teaser, but included 4 clear pictures of a dark violet-blue-gray vehicle (three of which illustrate this article) with clear stylistic ties to its predecessors.

So, are they correct, or off base? OK, so the title of this article is a huge, in-your-face giveaway spoiler as to what this author thinks, but please stay with us as we justify why our opinion flies in the face of much of the Internet punditry. After all, yours truly has been down this road before – almost 9 years ago, to be precise – debunking erroneous notions that the original Toyota Mark X was the 2nd-generation Lexus IS.

First, though, a review of the historic relation between essentially similar Lexus and Toyota models is in order. In terms of origins, these fall into two broad categories:

Conceived as a Lexus, but badged as a Toyota in Japan
Born of the F1 (“Flagship One”) initiative to create a large luxury vehicle to challenge the world’s best, the original Lexus LS launched Toyota’s international luxury brand, with sales starting in the United States in September 1989. With the Lexus brand not appearing in the Japanese market until 26 July 2005, however, there was an almost 16-year period which saw an at times convoluted relationship between the international Lexus models and their Toyota-badged variants for Japan. Japanese dealers began clamoring for their version of the Lexus LS, which appeared at Toyopet Stores barely a month after its U.S. debut bearing the Toyota Celsior badge. The late 2006 debut of the XF40 4th-generation Lexus LS saw the end of Toyota Celsior badging.

A high-end luxury sedan begs for a GT coupe counterpart, right? Thus work began on the E-segment Lexus SC at Toyota’s Calty Design Research center in California, leading to a June 1991 unveiling. In Japan it appeared around the same time as the 3rd (Z30) iteration of a familiar badge: Toyota Soarer. The Soarer name carried on into the Japanese version of the 2nd-generation (Z40) Lexus SC until the July 2005 Japanese rollout of the Lexus dealer network. Then, the Toyota Soarer simply changed badges and carried on as a Lexus until its ultimate demise as a production car in July 2010 and as a Super GT racer at the end of the 2011 season.

Toyotas rebadged as Lexus for export
Toyota soon realized that a single F-segment high-end large luxury sedan such as the Lexus LS / Toyota Celsior was not enough to sustain a dealer network, and hastily adapted the V20 (2nd-generation) Toyota Vista 4-door pillared hardtop (itself a Toyota Camry variant) as the original Lexus ES 250. This 2-year stopgap was replaced by the XV10 2nd-generation Lexus ES with a new Toyota Windom equivalent. Both were launched in September 1991. The ES/Windom relation continued until the debut of the XV40 5th-generation Lexus ES in February 2007, at which point the Toyota Windom died and the Lexus ES became a model built but not sold in Japan.

After the rear-wheel-drive F-segment Lexus LS sedan and the E-segment Lexus SC coupe, an E-segment sedan seemed like a natural next step for Lexus. After Calty designer Erwin Lui’s unorthodox tactic of using plaster-filled balloons to achieve the original SC coupe’s rounded, voluptuous shapes, Toyota did something just as unexpected: hire Italy’s famed Italdesign Giugiaro to design a new Crown derivative, the Toyota Aristo, which was unveiled in Japan in October 1991. Its Lexus GS counterpart for export began production in February 1993. The twin Aristo/GS continued for a second generation, known as S160, until the introduction of the 3rd-generation (S190) Lexus GS at the January 2005 Detroit Auto Show and the Japanese introduction of the Lexus brand over 6 months later killed the Toyota Aristo.

Lexus’ first foray into the world of sports utility vehicles was with the Lexus LX line, essentially fancier, high-luxe versions of the largest Toyota Land Cruisers, starting with the 1996 model year only for export. In a notable twist, however, the 2nd-generation (J100) Lexus LX was sold in Japan as the Toyota Land Cruiser Cygnus. The Cygnus badge didn’t survive past the 2007 model year.

The increasing popularity of European-style, enthusiast-friendly D-segment sports sedans led to the creation of the iconic Toyota Altezza in October 1998. The following year, its Lexus IS-badged counterpart first appeared in Europe. Alas, the original Altezza/IS lasted but a single generation, and the Altezza badge was laid to rest in March 2005 with the advent of the 2nd-generation (XE20) Lexus IS (although we once wondered if the Altezza badge was worthy of reviving).

Yes, just about every Toyota-badged Lexus introduced before 2005 has been relegated to history, with one exception…

Toyota Harrier 2

Harrier: the last remaining Toyota-to-Lexus model
Although previewed in concept form by the Lexus-badged SLV, the world’s first D-segment luxury crossover (car-based) SUV actually first went into production as the Toyota Harrier in December 1997, 3 months before being exported as the Lexus RX. Harrier and RX were near-identical twins during their first (XU10) and second (XU30) generations, the latter having first gone on sale in February 2003. As the 3rd-generation (AL10) Lexus RX appeared in November 2008 and finally entered Japanese showrooms, Toyota chose not to discontinue the Harrier. Rather, it carried on, virtually unchanged, in the Japanese domestic market, a fact that slipped under many radars.

In a sense, the seeds for this story were sown back in December 2012, when yours truly, researching something on the Toyota Japan site, accidentally stumbled upon a now dead Harrier page. If memory serves correctly, it was then available only with a single engine offering: the 2AZ-FE 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, a fact tacitly confirmed by the Batfa.com website.

Thus, Japanese consumers have, in a sense, the option of choosing between showroom-new 2nd-gen or 3rd-gen Lexus RXs, with the former bearing a Toyota badge and using a smaller, less powerful engine. Such a situation isn’t as unusual as you’d expect. Volkswagen is probably the champion in this regard, with buyers in China, Mexico and South Africa, off the top of our head, able to choose from multiple generations of Golfs, Jettas and Passats off the new car showroom floor. It isn’t unusual for European carmakers such as Opel, Fiat and Peugeot/Citroën to offer, for a period, decontented cheaper versions of soon-to-be-superseded models alongside their better-equipped, more expensive successors. And, in North America, Chevrolet has been known to continue building older versions of Malibus and Impalas for fleet and rental markets alongside the newer consumer-oriented versions.

With Toyota having chosen to continue offering the Harrier in Japan and the current version having remained virtually unchanged for over a decade, it’s no wonder we’re now looking at a successor. Just how much do we know at this point, though?

Hybrid-only or not?
Although recently down to a single 4-cylinder gasoline engine choice, the Toyota Harrier has previously offered the options of the 1MZ-FE 3-liter V6 and the gasoline-electric hybrid version of its larger 3MZ-FE 3.3-liter V6 sibling. It takes only the barest of glances to spot the prominent HYBRID badges on the front fenders of the newest Harrier, so we’re definitely seeing the return of the Harrier Hybrid. But will the Harrier go hybrid-only for the next generation? Hard to say for sure, but there’s certainly a strong case that it could. For one, the latest 7th-generation (XV50) Toyota Camry for the Japanese market has evolved into a niche Hybrid-only vehicle, the largest such front-wheel-drive model in Toyota’s domestic stable. Further, none of the Japanese domestic market’s crossover SUVs currently offer a hybrid version. The Highlander/Kluger? That hasn’t been sold in Japan since the advent of the second generation in mid-2007. The RAV4? The newest 4th-generation version has yet to go on sale there even with gasoline engines, let alone as a hybrid that the rumor mill says is an iffy proposition. And what about the other Toyotas conceptually closest to the Harrier: the American Venza and its similarly-styled smaller Japanese sibling, the Mark X Zio? Nope, no hybrids there, either.

And what powertrain would a Harrier Hybrid use? Our best guess is the 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder unit from the latest Camry Hybrid.

Facelift or all-new sheetmetal? A brief styling analysis.
Looking at the new Harrier, especially the side view and greenhouse, is giving us a very strong case of déjà vu. Is this all-new sheetmetal? Or simply an extensive facelift on the existing Harrier akin to those applied to the current 4th-generation Lexus LS for 2013 or to the previous 3rd-generation Toyota Avalon for the 2011 and 2012 model years?

The fixed glass pane on the trailing edge of the rear doors is more akin to the outgoing Harrier/2nd-gen Lexus RX than to the latest RX, which replaces this glass with a thicker C-pillar. Yet, details such as the greenhouse and side window shapes, fender and lower door sill shapes and sculpturing appear closer but hardly identical to the latest Lexus RX. Thus, we’ll conclude that we’re looking at new sheet metal, albeit styled in a very familiar way.

Toyota Harrier 3Up front is where the Harrier shows the most marked departure from its predecessor. Beneath the prominent chrome brow on the leading edge of the hood is an upper grille that, to this author, looks like a translucent throwback to the late 1980s-to-mid 1990s light bars found on Mercury Sable and Pontiac Grand Prix models of the era. The shape of the large lower grille follows current Toyota styling trends, and is especially reminiscent of the latest Avalon. Pretty distant from the current Lexus spindle grille look, we’d say.

When is the 4th-gen Lexus RX due, anyway?
Writers speculating on whether we’re about to see a new Lexus RX are ignoring that model’s product cadence. The 3rd-generation went on sale in February 2009 as a 2010 model and received the larger spindle grille as part of a mid-life facelift in Spring/Summer 2012 for the 2013 model year. Thus, we’d be quite surprised if a 4th-generation RX appeared any sooner than late 2014 or during the 2015 calendar year as a 2016 model. Besides, Lexus’ current priorities are launching its 2 newest model lines, the RC coupe and the NX smaller crossover SUV.

Any hopes for a Toyota Harrier/Lexus RX reconvergence? Sorry, but that train left in early 2009, and this new Harrier, if anything, shows that its path is veering further than ever from that of its formerly near-identical twin.

Lexus ES to be phased out? You’ve got to be kidding…

Lexus-ES300h-hybrid

Among this author’s many oddball geeky/nerdy automotive interests is following Motor Trend magazine’s annual Power List of the “Top 50 movers, shakers, heart-breakers in the mercurial world of autodom”, as they described it in 2008. This ritual goes back further than that, though, having started in 2005, and has been compiled by Todd Lassa since 2010.

Its latest 2013 iteration reminds us that “steady is the new up”, with less changes in the ranks and listings than at any time in recent memory. Yet, one of the handful of exceptions to that rule is Toyota Motor Company’s President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, who rises from the #26 position in 2012 all the way to #3 this year, and is, in Lassa’s words, gunning for first. His passionate approach includes kudos for the successful Scion FR-S launch and for his cheerleading efforts in ensuring that nonsport models such as the Lexus GS and Toyota Avalon have a personality, as well as spearheading the company’s return to Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Also appearing on the list is Bob Carter, rising from #45 in 2012 to #34 this year, chiefly on the strength of his promotion last April to Toyota Motor Sales USA’s Automotive Operations Senior Vice President, a position that includes responsibilities for Scion and Lexus as well. Fortunately, Lassa affirms that, like corporate chief and scion Toyoda, Carter personally prefers sporty cars over Camrys, and goes on to suggest that Carter may become Toyota’s next American board member, an honor that other pundits have suggested for Senior Managing Officer of Toyota Motor Corporation and Chairman of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Réal “Ray” Tanguay.

The third Toyota official on the 2013 list, and marking his first appearance in the #45 position is Lexus Product Marketing Planning Division General Manager Mark Templin. Talk of his “unenviably tough job assignment” and goals of growing Lexus outside North America, however, were overshadowed by the jaw-dropping suggestion that Lexus’s aims included “Phasing out best-selling ES. Let Toyota Avalon have the segment”.

So, was Todd Lassa (who also serves as Automobile magazine’s Executive Editor) merely playing armchair product planner and expressing a wish for a more enthusiast-friendly lineup of Lexus sedans? Or is Lexus planning to follow the current Mercedes-Benz and future BMW playbook of using rear-wheel-drive platforms for D-segment and larger models and front-wheel-drive platforms for C-segment and smaller vehicles going forward? This author reached out to Mr. Lassa and received the following reply:

The statement about RWD does NOT come from Mark Templin. Several sources have told me that Toyota will satisfy the Lexus ES market with the Avalon.

Interesting, and something this author has decidedly mixed feelings about. As implied above, going with rear-wheel-drive-centric mid-sized and larger models (with all-wheel-drive options for snowy climes) would cement Lexus’ status as a worthy Mercedes-Benz and BMW rival with an equal emphasis on handling and driving dynamics. On paper, this makes the front-wheel-drive ES an out-of-place throwback that is saddled with a reputation as a dull-to-drive, old folks’ retirement community conveyance. By the time the Lexus ES’s 5th-generation was launched in February 2006, it was a model built but unavailable for sale in its native Japan, and sold only in North America and a handful of Asian and Middle East markets. Its newfound success in China (where, at one point, it was the 4th-best-selling luxury sedan) was thwarted by Sino/Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands that sent all Japanese car sales in China plummeting just as the new 6th-generation ES made its move to the larger Toyota Avalon base – primarily to satisfy China’s longing for maximum rear-seat legroom in a luxury segment whose vehicles are usually chauffeur-driven.

In a way, though, it would be a shame if the ES goes away, for its newest iteration, arguably, wears the cleanest, most attractive and least overwrought take on Lexus’ new spindle grille and design language, and this author was quite pleasantly surprised by its driving manners and handling. Then again, similar kudos have been expressed over the new 4th-generation (XX40) Toyota Avalon which shares its underpinnings with the newest ES. And we’ll certainly admit that a top-of-the-line 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited is probably closer to the latest Lexus ES than any of the previous ones were to a Toyota Camry XLE V6. And Toyota could borrow a page from the Tundra playbook and slip a Platinum version of the Avalon above the Limited to even better replace the Lexus ES.

Yet, as with our previous story, this author remains skeptical of the rumor that Lexus would eventually kill the ES. It is, by far, Lexus’ best-selling sedan in the United States (and Lexus’ second-best-selling vehicle overall here). To put the numbers into perspective, the 5186 copies of the ES sold in the U.S. during January 2013 exceeds sales of the rest of the brand’s car lineup combined (we’re leaving the SUV and crossover RX, GX and LX lines out of this discussion). And, looking back at the 2012 calendar year, the 56,158 ES units sold in the U.S. are just a couple of thousand units under the sum of last year’s IS, GS and LS sales here combined. ES’s sales advantage, in fact, might have been even greater had it not been for the downtime due to the production changeover from the 5th to 6th generation model. Is Lexus really in a position to “throw away” sales numbers like those? Or does Toyota think that a combination of a better and more popular Avalon, a roomier Lexus IS and a vastly better-selling (and critically-acclaimed) Lexus GS might eventually make the ES redundant? At any rate, with the latest versions of the Lexus ES and Toyota Avalon siblings having been on sale for just a few months and foreseen to sell for 6 to 7 years in essentially their current state, there is still time for Toyota to let the market (and the company’s engineers, product planners and marketers) sort out what the best course of action is going forward.

A final footnote in this discussion is the decades-long, on-and-off rumors that the Lexus ES line would eventually be built in North America. These reached a new crescendo when the latest ES essentially became a higher-lux version of the built-only-in-the-U.S. Toyota Avalon amidst a strong yen/weak dollar currency exchange rate that would make North American assembly far more profitable. Among the latest of those predictions comes from Haig Stoddard of the respected WardsAuto industry journal, who in mid-December 2012 said he “expects Toyota to add production of a Lexus model at its Georgetown, Kentucky plant”, the precise location of Avalon production. This decision alone should have a large bearing on the Lexus ES’s future, and we should add that, since then, the newly-weakening yen versus the U.S. dollar is making the decision to move ES production to North America a less pressing matter.

The 2012 Informed Speculation scoreboard

Rare is the car magazine that does not have a section dedicated to brief notes and comments on future vehicle news, rumors and what we refer to as Informed Speculation, bearing titles such as Upfront, the Oracle, Ampersand and MT Confidential. And, just as often as not, what you read there may turn out to be off-base or utterly false. Those mistaken predictions are quietly disregarded, swept under the rug in the hopes that, with our short attention spans and “too much information” digital age, their authors can pretend they were never made in the first place. To name but one totally random example, Georg Kacher once wrote in CAR magazine that the Toyota Auris Hybrid that debuted in 2010 would be powered by the 2nd-generation (XW20) Prius’ 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder hybrid power train when, in fact, it used the 3rd-gen (XW30) Prius’ larger 1.8-liter 2ZR-FXE unit instead. The 1.5-liter 1NZ-FXE was eventually revived, but in the smaller Aqua/Prius c and Yaris Hybrid models, not in the Auris.

We at Kaizen Factor, on the other hand, are more honest with ourselves. As the 2012 major auto show season drew to a close with the Saturday 9 December end of the Angeles Auto Show, and as the clock counts down to the end of the 2012 calendar year, it’s time to look back at our major Informed Speculation stories and see where we were right and where we were woefully off the mark.

hsd_01The 7 new Toyota and Lexus hybrids due by the end of 2012
Over 2 years ago, a RAV4 EV Demonstration Vehicle press release in the Toyota USA Newsroom informed us that “…by the end of 2012, Toyota will add seven all new (not next-generation) hybrid models to its portfolio”. Naturally, we took that as a challenge and came up with what we felt were the 7 vehicles in question. Our score: 4 out of 7 right.

The “Toyota Prius MPV (also referred to as Prius Alpha or Prius Verso)” was, indeed, named Prius Alpha in Japan, but alternately bears Prius+ (in Europe) and Prius v (in North America, Australia and Hong Kong) badging. The “‘Baby Prius’, based on Toyota FT-CH concept” saw production as the Aqua (in Japan) or Prius c (in other markets). We were also right about the Europe-only Toyota Yaris HSD and the Lexus ES h, although we erroneously felt it was likelier as an ES 450h using the Lexus RX 450h’s 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6-based hybrid powertrain. Instead, we got the initial Lexus-brand application (in the ES 300h) of the 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder hybrid powertrain from the latest Toyota Camry Hybrid.

And the trio we got wrong? Unlike the 1st-generation Auris, Toyota did not add a hybrid variant to the current 3rd-generation Toyota Avensis at the time of its 2012 model year mid-life facelift, nor has the Toyota Sienna minivan received a hybrid version. And the Lexus IS h? Yes, it’s coming, but after the end of 2012 time frame, and not for North America. So, what did we miss in their place? The Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Lexus CT 200h, which actually went into production in December 2010, a month after the aforementioned press release was issued. Try as we might, we couldn’t come up with a third, so we suspect that Toyota is counting the 5-passenger Prius v with a nickel-metal hydride battery hybrid system and the 7-passenger Prius+ with a lithium-ion battery hybrid system as 2 separate models. Does that make it 5 out of 7 right, then?

7 or 11? The other 4 upcoming Toyota and Lexus hybrids
No sooner had this author posted the above-referenced story that word came, via Yahoo News/AFP and AutoWeek that, in fact, Toyota’s plans were to release 11 new hybrids by the end of calendar year 2012. The difference? Besides the 7 discussed above, an additional 4 were new-generation versions of existing hybrids. Here, we got 2 out of 4 right, with the Lexus GS 450h version of the 4th-generation Lexus GS and the Toyota Camry Hybrid offshoot of its latest 7th-generation.

We were wrong about the Toyota Estima Hybrid minivan, and even though the Lexus LS received a major facelift that was unveiled on 30 July 2012, it wasn’t profound enough to call it a new generation, so we’ll put it in the “wrong” column as well. The two we missed? The 2nd-generation Toyota Auris HSD that just debuted at the September 2012 Paris Motor Show and, just making it under the wire, the hybrid version of the 14th-generation Toyota Crown, officially unveiled on Christmas Day 2012.

The hybrid versions of the Crown Royal and Crown Athlete mark the debut of the 2AR-FSE engine, as predicted in our recent TMC’s Environmental Technology Development update: a peek at Toyota and Lexus’ powertrain future (Part 1) article. Yes, you read that right. What we referred to as the “2AR-FXE with D-4S engine variant” has been given the 2AR-FSE moniker instead. This is essentially the current Camry Hybrid / Avalon Hybrid / Lexus ES 300h 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine with the addition of D-4S dual direct+port injection, for which we had predicted something in the vicinity of 220-225 total system horsepower. The Toyota Global newsroom tells us that, in the Toyota Crown Hybrids, it produces 162 kW (220 PS), or 217 total system horsepower, just a bit shy of our earlier guesstimate.

The 19 new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models to launch during 2012
With 19 vehicles at stake, this North American-centric prediction had far greater room for error, yet we only note one major miscue: the prediction of a Hybrid version of the just-launched 4th-generation Toyota RAV4. Taking its place on the list: the Toyota Venza mid-life facelift.

Admittedly, we did get some details wrong. The RAV4 EV, for instance, turned out to be a 3rd-gen derivative after all. The definitive inside story of the Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV collaboration is an Automotive News story by Mark Rechtin titled From an odd couple to a dream team, which informs us that

There also was the problem of developing the EV based on an old platform. In fact, a redesigned RAV4 with a new platform was scheduled to be launched at about the same time the EV would arrive.

It would not be possible to develop an EV concurrently with the new RAV4 platform. And the parties could not wait for the new model to be completed before starting r&d and still meet (Akio) Toyoda’s tight deadline, (RAV4 EV chief engineer Greg) Bernas said. The old platform would have to do.

Other errors include predicting that the 2013 Lexus LS would be the 5th-generation model when, in fact, it was an extensive second facelift to the 4th-gen; and scaled-way-back production plans for the Toyota/Scion iQ EV, from the originally-planned run of 600 cars (400 remaining in Japan, 100 earmarked for Europe and the final hundred coming to the United States wearing the Scion badge) to 100 cars or so total, with about 90 coming to the U.S., the balance remaining in Japan and none going to Europe.

Finally, we must admit that the 4th-gen RAV4′s launch timing (public debut in late November 2012, but production start and on-sale date of January 2013) puts it in a borderline situation where we wonder which year Toyota is counting it in. We’ll stick with the former, but, already, the carmaker has announced 7 new or facelifted models for the 2013 calendar year. And that will be the subject of our next Informed Speculation article.

TMC’s Environmental Technology Development update: a peek at Toyota and Lexus’ powertrain future (Part 1)

On Monday 24 September, what was ostensibly the press preview for the (very limited) production version of the battery electric variant of the Toyota iQ soon became, in the words of Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars, “the strangest product launch I have ever seen”. Given how much information the usually reticent Toyota revealed regarding its future powertrain plans, press coverage was equally strange, veering between overly simplistic and sensationalist sound bites. Toyota to Launch 21 New Hybrids and a New Fuel Cell Vehicle in the Next Three Years! Toyota drops plan for widespread sales of electric car! Toyota kills electric car plans, says ‘capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs’! Ultimately, only a trio of accounts of what transpired at the Universal Design Showcase of Tokyo’s MegaWeb are truly worth reading: the aforementioned Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars‘ “you-are-there” report, Hans Greimel’s Automotive News/Autoweek story for its large number of exclusive tidbits of information and, if you’re really pressed for time, Jake Holmes of Motor Trend‘s summary of the full TMC Announces Status of Its Environmental Technology Development, Future Plans Toyota Global newsroom PDF document. If, however, you prefer deep-dive analysis, commentary, interpretation and informed speculation of the sort Kaizen Factor thrives on, stay with us as we deconstruct Toyota’s newest revelations.

A new 2AR-FXE with D-4S engine variant
The “enhanced engine for use in hybrid vehicles, based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine, (adopting) the Atkinson cycle and D-4S system” is none other than a new D-4S (dual direct+port injection) variant of the 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle hybrid engine used on the current Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus ES 300h. The existence of this engine was actually revealed a week earlier, in a Lexus USA Newsroom press release for the Lexus LF-CC concept. In a story for the my.IS website, yours truly figured that it would produce something in the vicinity of 220-225 total system horsepower (versus 200 total system horsepower for the port injection-only 2AR-FXE). Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development news release adds a couple of new bits of information. For one, the 2AR-FXE with D-4S achieves the world’s highest maximum thermal efficiency (38.5%), which translates into the engine producing more power and using less fuel, while wasting less heat.

Hans Greimel also informs us that this iteration of the 2AR-FXE engine will receive Denso’s newly-tweaked D-4S injectors that already appear in the 4th-generation Lexus GS and Scion FR-S/Toyota GT 86. In comparison to the original D-4S injectors that date back to 2006, the new ones use a slit-shaped (as opposed to the previous multihole) injector opening. This creates a richer fuel mixture inside the cylinder and results in 1% better fuel economy.

Toyota reveals that this engine will go on sale sometime during calendar year 2013 in an undisclosed vehicle. Greimel, however, suggests that the Japanese domestic market’s Toyota Crown Hybrid will be the first recipient of the new powerplant. Makes sense, as this would allow for some closer-to-home experience before exporting it in the Crown’s platform-mates, the rumored (and trademarked) Lexus GS 300h and IS 300h versions of the 4th-gen GS and 3rd-gen IS, respectively. Given current rumors that the IS 300h, like the outgoing IS 200d and IS 220d, will only be sold in Europe, expect a debut for the Lexus variants at either the 2013 Geneva Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 March) or, later in the year, at the Frankfurt Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 September).

Beyond its initial applications in Toyota’s new rear-wheel-drive N-platform (launched with the 4th-generation Lexus GS and expected to spread to the upcoming 3rd-generation Lexus IS and 14th-generation [S210 or S220] Toyota Crown), will the 2AR-FXE with D-4S hybrid powertrain eventually migrate to the myriad front-wheel-drive K-platform Toyota Camry derivatives that use the AR 4-cylinder engines? Could be…

A turbocharged 3AR-FTE or (better yet) 3AR-GTE?!
In what is perhaps the biggest surprise of the Environmental Technology Development announcement, Toyota informs us that

Starting 2014, TMC plans to launch a vehicle with a new 2.0-liter, turbo-charged AR engine, also based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine. The new engine’s smaller displacement will provide higher fuel efficiency while the turbocharger will improve output.

In other words, Toyota is meeting the challenge laid down by Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler/Fiat, among others, in going the smaller displacement with a turbo route, all the better to “game” the U.S. EPA fuel economy cycle (and its European and Japanese counterparts) into producing lower consumption numbers realistically achievable only if you drive 24/7 like Grandma on a day she forgot to eat her breakfast. Step on it, spool the turbo up to full boost, and you’ll use more gas than in the naturally-aspirated 2.5, but I digress…

As we noted back in December 2011,

When looking back at Toyota’s boosted gasoline powerplants, the company’s history is akin to Audi’s, with a mix of turbocharging (Supra, 2nd-generation MR2, Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo/GT-Four) and supercharging (1st-generation MR2, TRD aftermarket kits and Australia’s Aurion TRD). The new millennium, however, has seen nothing but superchargers.

Thus, it’s a 180 degree, back-to-the-future turn for Toyota to turbocharge, as opposed to supercharging, its AR 4-cylinder engine.

Deducing what engine code the new 2-liter AR turbo will use is a fairly straightforward matter. As is the case for Toyota and Lexus’ GR V6 engine family, the smaller the first number, the larger the engine displacement, and vice-versa. The 1AR-FE is a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine that debuted in Toyota’s current Venza and Highlander, made a brief appearance in the current Sienna minivan and is also available in the Asian-market Lexus RX 270. The 2AR-FE is its smaller 2.5-liter variant (shown above left) that is available in Toyota’s RAV4 and Camry, the Scion tC coupe and the new throwback-badged Lexus ES 250 for the Chinese market. The 2AR-FXE, of course, is the hybrid version we discussed earlier. Thus, a 2-liter version will be a 3AR. The “F”, per Wikipedia, denotes an economy narrow-angle valve DOHC (dual overhead camshaft) head, while a “G” would make it a performance wide-angle valve DOHC. A “T” for turbo is, of course, obligatory, as is the final “E” for electronic fuel injection. Thus, it would be a 3AR-FTE if it’s more economy-oriented or a 3AR-GTE if it’s performance-oriented. Sure, we definitely prefer the latter, but should also note Toyota GT 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada’s thoughts on boost (again from our December 2011 article):

Tada-san favours the supercharger approach because it is simpler to achieve than increasing engine size and doesn’t wreck throttle response as turbocharging might. Indeed Toyota says that turbocharging along with four-wheel drive and wide tyres are what make sports cars boring to drive.

In other words, we suspect a more economy-oriented 3AR-FTE is likelier. As to what 2014 vehicle gets the honors of launching this engine, it’s anybody’s guess, but this author suspects some sort of obscure, low-production variant of the Corolla for the Japanese domestic market. I know our co-editor Flipside909 is rooting for it to power a Volkswagen GTI-rivaling son-of-Corolla FX16 GT-S. Or, perhaps, a non-hybrid Lexus CT 200t sporty hatchback with a proper manual transmission?

Another compelling question is whether or not the so-called 3AR-FTE will use D-4S dual direct+port injection. We suspect not, given the historical issues with aftermarket boost for Toyota’s GR-FSE V6s and how Subaru went direct injection-only when turbocharging the FA20 flat 4.

Toyota’s small ND diesel gets a reprieve for Europe
In our first article on the BMW/Toyota alliance, we figured that Toyota wouldn’t bother to reengineer its aging diesel engines to meet upcoming Euro 6 standards. It turns out we were wrong, at least insofar as the smallest of them all, the 1.4-liter 1ND-TV. As the carmaker informs us,

The adoption of newly developed exhaust gas cleaning technology enabled the engine to pass the Euro 6, one of the most stringent exhaust emission standards in the world. Vehicles equipped with the new diesel engine are planned for launch starting 2015.

Thus, expect the 1ND-TV to soldier on in Toyota’s Yaris, Auris, Corolla, iQ, Ractis/Verso-S and Urban Cruiser (Toyota ist/Scion xD) lines, as well as in India-built versions of the Etios and Etios Liva models. On the other hand, the press release is silent on the ultimate fate of Toyota’s medium-sized AD 4-cylinder diesels. Expect those to be replaced by BMW diesels as of 2014.

i-ART: another Toyota/Denso fuel injection breakthrough
Throughout this article, D-4S, the first-ever dual direct+port injection system pioneered by Toyota and automotive supplier Denso, has been a recurring theme. Flying under the radar, however, the latter (itself a member of the Toyota Group conglomerate) announced, in December 2011, the creation of i-ART (intelligent-Accuracy Refinement Technology) the world’s first autonomous closed-loop diesel fuel injection control system. In essence, this system equips each injector with a pressure sensor that communicates its fuel pressure to the engine ECU and, in doing so, significantly reduces exhaust emissions and increases fuel efficiency, compared with the conventional open-looped technology that does not have feedback function from the injectors. i-ART-equipped versions of the 3-liter 1KD-FTV 4-cylinder diesel debuted in the Brazilian market version of the Hilux pickup truck in April 2012. Given the ease with which a 2-liter diesel i-ART test unit met upcoming Euro 6 emisions standards, we wouldn’t be surprised if this technology spread throughout the KD diesel engine family (including the smaller 2.5-liter 2KD-FTV) and to other Toyota truck-based lines such as Land Cruiser Prado and Third World models such as Fortuner, Innova and Hiace. And, if this technology is so emissions-friendly, wouldn’t it be cool to see these diesels in North America’s expansive truck-based Toyota line, not to mention in Lexus’ GX as a rival to the German luxury diesel SUVs? Then again, 3 liters is awfully large for a 4-cylinder engine, and the Germans use 6 cylinder diesels in this size segment, at least in North America, so the KD might be a bit crude for Lexus duty…

Arrghh! Toyota’s CVTs spread beyond hybrids, Europe and Japan
As Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update shifts its focus from engines to transmissions, discussion begins with one of this author’s pet peeves: CVTs, or continuously variable transmissions. I’m still regretting the way in which the traditional manual transmission with a clutch pedal is becoming a dinosaur of an endangered species, but at least modern torque-converter automatic transmissions and so-called single and dual-clutch (but no clutch pedal) transmissions purport to maintain some level of driver control via “manumatic” modes, gates and paddle shifters. CVTs, on the other hand, are far less likely to offer these options. As of now, dissatisfaction with the “manual mode” paddle shift feel on the Lexus CT 200h’s CVT transaxle led to a decision to limit this option to the Japanese domestic market. Indeed, the so-called “rubber band feel” of CVTs and the way they hold high revs while the car barely seems to move is off-putting to many.

Yet, CVTs also have their virtues, fuel efficiency chief among them. They are also the best way to manage hybrid powertrains, as tepid reviews of hybrids with torque-converter automatics such as the Infiniti M and the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima fraternal twins can attest to. At any rate, a number of carmakers, such as Nissan and Subaru have staked their future on the CVT, and Honda and Audi also use them on some models. We certainly hold out hope that diligent engineering will result in future CVTs that…er…don’t suck, as Nissan seems determined to do.

Perhaps we’re dismissive because, in North America, the Scion iQ is the sole non-hybrid Toyota product using a CVT, whereas Japan and Europe offer a plethora of CVT-equipped models. In the latter market, so-called Multidrive (M/D) and paddle shifter-equipped Multidrive S (M/D S) models use the CVT. These, by the way, should not be confused with Multimode Manual Transmission (M/M) models that use a type of sequential manual transmission consisting of a traditional manual gearbox with an electronically controlled clutch (but no clutch pedal). The Environmental Technology Development press release touts

TMC’s newly developed continuously variable transmission, Super CVT-i, (that) has achieved both superior fuel efficiency and smooth acceleration due to its unsurpassed transmission efficiency, improved integrated engine control and reductions in both size and weight. The transmission, first installed on the Corolla for the Japanese market in June 2012, is planned for use on additional models, particularly in the compact segment.

Perhaps those additional models include the upcoming North American version of the 11th-generation (E160) Toyota Corolla.

From the folks that brought you the world’s first 8-speed automatic transmission, the world’s first 8-speed automatic transaxle
Back in 2006, Japan’s automatic transmission manufacturer Aisin AW rocked an automotive world accustomed to 4, 5 and 6-speed automatics by designing the TL-80SN, the first-ever 8-speed automatic transmission. Suitable for rear-wheel-drive applications, it debuted in the 2007 XF40 (4th-generation) Lexus LS 460. The AA80E transmission, as Toyota calls it, soon spread through their V8 car lineup, namely the Lexus IS F, the late, lamented Lexus GS 460 and the Toyota Crown Majesta. Nearly 2 years later, German automotive supplier ZF countered with its own 8-speed longitudinal automatic transmission, the 8HP. After launching with the 5th-generation (F01/F02) BMW 7-Series, the 8HP quickly spread to other brands such as Audi, Bentley, Chrysler, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls-Royce. Hyundai, meanwhile, developed its own 8-speed automatic for use in the Genesis and Equus lines.

Notice, though, that even the highly flexible ZF 8HP unit is a longitudinal transmission, used by Audi only in its longitudinally-engined lines (A4 thru A8), and not in its smaller (A3 and below, plus TT) transverse-engine models. Leave it, again, to Toyota and Aisin to follow up the pioneering TL-80SN / AA80E with the world’s first transversely-mounted 8-speed automatic transaxle, the U880F which premiered on the all-wheel-drive Lexus RX 350 F Sport SUV for the North American market in August 2012. And, stay tuned, for Toyota strongly hints that the U880, presumably in “regular” (front-wheel-drive) and F (AWD) iterations, should eventually spread throughout Lexus and Toyota’s FWD-centric models.

21 new hybrid models between now and the end of 2015
Among the numerous revelations contained in Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, the claim you see above is among those that has been most widely reported and generated the most buzz. Yet, to our knowledge, no one has attempted to name the 21 vehicles. And, frankly, we’re not about to either, at least not in the in-depth manner in which we dared to guess at the 7 all-new hybrids, 4 revised existing hybrids and 19 new or revised models for North America due by the end of calendar year 2012. The nearly 3½-year time frame and the global (including Lexus) nature of this list makes even Kaizen Factor‘s crystal ball go all blurry and erratic. Further confusing things is what Toyota means by “now”. The Monday 24 September 2012 date of Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update? Or the August 2012 date mentioned in a couple of Toyota’s footnotes? This seemingly picayune point is key in determining whether or not the Lexus ES 300h, which went on sale in the United States and Canada during August 2012, is part of the list of 21.

Hans Greimel of Automotive News did note, however, that 14 will be either all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently come with an electric-gasoline option, leaving 7 next-generation, or full-model changes to existing hybrids. The latter are easier to guess at, and we figure that next-generation hybrid versions of Toyota Auris, Toyota Prius, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Estima (a primarily Japanese domestic market minivan that is a bit smaller than the Sienna), Toyota Crown, Lexus RX and Lexus LS are the likeliest 7.

And what about the 14 all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently offer an electric-gasoline option? These run the gamut from the obvious (The Toyota Avalon which will go on sale by the end of 2012 and the trademarked Lexus IS 300h) to the safe bet guesses to the flat-out speculative. And, speaking of Lexus, do rumored additional, alternate-engined versions of existing hybrids (think Lexus CT 300h, Lexus GS 300h or Lexus LS 450h) count separately among the 21?

Our previous Informed Speculation articles suggested hybrid versions of Toyota Avensis, Toyota Sienna, Toyota RAV4 and, perhaps, Toyota Venza. With the 11th-generation (E160) Corolla already available in Japan in a couple of variants and its Auris offshoot already hybridized, don’t be surprised if a Toyota Corolla hybrid becomes available. Don’t expect, however, a future version, hybrid or otherwise of the Toyota Matrix, which will die at the end of the 2013 model year.

Talk of a potential RAV4 hybrid reminds us that its upcoming 4th-generation (XA40) is expected to sire a Lexus sibling, which could wear the Lexus TX 300h moniker. And might the brand’s two recent hybrid concept coupes – LF-CC and LF-LC – lead to production versions bearing, say, Lexus IC 300h and Lexus LC 600h badges?

And what about the Toyota/Ford collaboration on a “new co-developed hybrid system ready for use later this decade on…rear-wheel-drive light trucks and SUVs”? Does that mean we’ll see hybrid Toyota Tundra and Toyota Sequoia models by the end of 2015? Hard to say, since the original Toyota Global and USA news releases from 22 August 2011 not only fail to mention any prospective production dates but promised to move from Memorandum of Understanding to formal production agreement “by next year” – meaning 2012 – yet, with less than 3 months to go before year’s end, nothing has happened. Might an announcement be forthcoming at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 28 or Thursday 29 November?

Finally, Lord knows what obscure Japanese domestic market-only hybrids Toyota will come up with. For example, this author vaguely recalls reading something about possible hybrid versions of the oddball, asymmetrical door (single slider on the left, two regular doors on the right) Toyota Porte/Spade twins. Not much of a stretch, really, since they share their underpinnings (read NBC, or New Basic Car platform) with Yaris and Prius c/Aqua.

Thus ends Part 1 of our in-depth analysis and commentary on Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, which corresponds to the Initiatives for Energy Conservation section of the news release, focusing on improvements to conventional gasoline, diesel and hybrid powertrains. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will feature our thoughts on Initiatives for Fuel Diversification, as Toyota describes various degrees of electrification such as plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles and fuel cells. This will conclude with a Beyond the News Release section featuring additional background information, much of it from journalists that attended the actual press event in Japan.

Lexus ES gets the Ponce de Leon spa treatment

Although my entry into the world of Lexus – as vehicle owner, website editor and new model reviewer – was via the IS sport sedan line and the my.IS (née IS300.NET) fan site, I’m more familiar with the sedate, old-mannish ES than I care to admit, thanks to my father.

Papi was actually an Acura fan for over a decade, starting with a 1988 Legend sedan (its first year with the larger, 2.7-liter V6) and continuing through a string of Legend and TL sedans that was broken when a 2001 2nd-generation TL suffered an all-too-common total transmission failure. Swearing off the brand, he gave Lexus a shot. His first ES, however, was a 2004 MCV31 (4th-generation) ES 330, hardly the pinnacle of Lexus achievement. Its nose was dominated by oversized, Peugeotesque headlights, its overall looks were among the closest to its Toyota Camry progenitor, the 3MZ-FE 3.3-liter V6 felt lethargic, and the U151E 5-speed automatic transaxle’s shifts were slurry and hesitant. Sure, it was smooth and quiet, and the interior materials were top-notch, but the driving experience was numbed by a figurative overdose of Novocaine. Still, the car, and the transmission emerged from the duration of the lease in one reliable, trouble-free piece, and he anxiously awaited what the next Lexus ES would hold.

Fortunately, the Lexus spirit of kaizen, or continuous improvement, was ever-present as its successor, the 5th-generation (GSV40) ES 350. Save for a noticeable but not earth-shattering downgrade in the quality of some interior materials, the new ES was a vast and noticeable improvement over its predecessor, with its exterior styling and 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6 / U660E 6-speed automatic transaxle powertrain leading the way. The ES could now be hustled with some alacrity, helped by a “manumatic +/-” gate in the transmission shifter. Still, its moves were far from sports sedan territory. Then again, this is the beauty of Lexus’ multi-pronged entry-luxury strategy, and the reason yours truly’s daily driver is a Lexus IS.

From North America to China, the ES’s mission expands, as does its size
Much as the Toyota Altezza sports sedan that begat the original Lexus IS, the first ES began as something of an accidental Lexus. While kicking off Lexus’ mission of a “moon-shot”, world-class flagship V8 luxury sedan with the original LS 400, the company soon saw the need for a less expensive companion in North American showrooms. Hence, the Toyota Vista (itself a gussied-up, rebadged Camry) was hastily pressed into duty as Lexus’ original entry-level model. For the three generations after that, Toyota developed a more properly luxurious and upmarket Camry derivative, the Windom, that received Lexus ES badging for exports outside Japan. The 5th-generation, however, saw a notable change: with the launch of the Lexus brand in the Japanese Domestic Market, the company killed the Toyota Windom and saw no place for the ES in its JDM lineup. Hence, the ES became, like the original Scion tC, a Japanese-built model unavailable in its country of origin, and only offered with left-hand-drive.

With the left-hand-drive-only decision also killing the ES for Australia and New Zealand, the 5th-gen ES 350 became primarily a model for North America, with a handful of Asian and Middle East sales. For the 2010 model year, however, Lexus expanded the range in China with the ES 240, powered by the 2.4-liter 2AZ-FE inline-4 engine from previous iterations of Toyota’s Camry, RAV4 and Scion tC. This move, aimed at countering China’s consumption tax that penalizes larger-displacement engines, succeeded beyond Lexus’ expectations and propelled the ES to 4th place in luxury sedan sales there. Thus, with the Lexus ES now the brand’s best-selling sedan line in the world’s two largest automotive markets, Chinese demands become paramount, and none is more important or significant than maximizing rear-seat legroom.

To clarify that, the cheap labor that has helped put China’s booming economy on the map also means that even middle managers that can barely afford an entry-luxury import-brand sedan can nonetheless easily afford to hire a chauffeur to drive them around. This has, in turn, created a trend where local Chinese assembly operations of the German luxury 3 (Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz) have for years offered long-wheelbase versions of the A6, 5-Series and E-Class, respectively, variants generally unavailable outside China. And, as the trend trickles further downward, we now see Audi A4Ls and, soon, Li versions of the latest F30 (6th-gen) BMW 3-Series. Back in November 2011, at the 4th-gen Lexus GS press preview, this author asked about the possibility of a long-wheelbase GS for China, which was met with a resounding “no”. And, now, we clearly see why: in its 6th-generation, the Lexus ES is no longer Camry-sized. Rather, it now shares its wheelbase and underpinnings with the larger Toyota Avalon. This decision strikes this author as particularly clever, since stretching a front-wheel-drive platform is easier and more cost-effective than doing so with a rear-wheel-drive one like the Lexus IS/GS uses, since there would be no need for a dedicated longer driveshaft. And, frankly, a chauffeur-driven Chinese owner could surely care less which set of wheels is propelling the car.

In a marvel of space efficiency, while the wheelbase has grown 1.8″ and overall length has stretched by just 1″ versus the previous ES, rear seat head, knee and legroom have all increased, the latter by a whopping 4.1″, essentially matching the length increase of many of the Germans’ (and the Jaguar XJ’s) short-vs-long-wheelbase offerings. Does this come at the expense of front seat legroom or trunk space? Front seat legroom did see a nominal decrease (from 42.2″ to 41.9″), as did front hip room and rear shoulder room. Trunk space, on the other hand, is also larger, growing from 14.8 cubic feet in the previous 5th-gen ES to 15.2 in the new ES 350. The hybrid ES 300h loses 3.1 cubic feet of trunk capacity in order to accommodate its battery pack. Overall EPA passenger volume grows from 95.4 cubic feet in the previous ES 350 to 100.1 cubic feet in the new generation, regardless of powertrain. This growth spurt, however, is not enough to push it into the admittedly arbitrary U.S. EPA Large car class, which requires a sum of Passenger + Cargo volume of 120 cubic feet or greater, a bogey the ES 350 misses by 4.7 cubic feet. Expect the much swoopier 2013 (4th-generation) Toyota Avalon to fall out of the large car classification as well.

Nor has style suffered any as a result of the China-inspired extra length. If anything, that only makes it easier to tailor a beautiful, stylish, flowing silhouette that is an evolution of the outgoing ES, with a side profile that strikes this author as the 21st-century evolution of the seminal General Motors “torpedo fastback” look typified by the 1967 Chevrolet Impala and its assorted badge-engineered siblings. If anything prevents it from a perfect 10, it’s the hood cutline / headlight / top of grille area. Not making the hood’s leading edge match the top of the grille gives the nose something of a “snout” look that is prominent in certain angles and lighter colors. Also, the hood’s leading edge just inboard of the headlights appears to have an unduly large, unresolved gap. Finally, some simpler, less spoke-filled wheel designs might help, but this is easily solved via the aftermarket.

Mechanical evolution…
As is the case with a great majority of Toyota and Lexus models that have been renewed for 2012 and 2013, the Lexus ES 350′s powertrain (2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6 engine in its post-2011 268-hp iteration that runs on 87 octane regular fuel and U660E 6-speed automatic transaxle) carries over from the previous generation model. There are, however, a number of tweaks for the 6th-gen model, such as improved uphill and downhill control for the transaxle and, most importantly, a new Drive Mode Select feature with Normal, Eco and Sport (!) modes, the latter allowing for a more responsive throttle and firmer, more tactile Electric Power Steering. An improved coefficient of drag (now 0.27) and curb weight that is 31 lbs lighter than its predecessor (now 3,549 lbs) contribute towards improved U.S. EPA fuel economy numbers of 21 mpg city/31 mpg hwy (versus its predecessor’s 19 mpg city/27 hwy).

Those numbers pale, however, when compared to its new ES 300h hybrid sibling’s EPA rating of 40 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. These exemplary figures, by the way, are 5 miles per gallon better than those achieved by the smaller yet 22 lbs-heavier HS 250h. Consider this yet another factor in the Lexus HS’s imminent departure from the North American market. Also notable is Lexus’ promise that the ES 300h’s hybrid price premium will be the lowest in its lineup, a distinction currently held by the RX’s $6600 price jump for its hybrid versions. Then again, this shouldn’t be all that unexpected, given that the ES 300h is down 1 liter and 2 cylinders on its ES 350 sibling. Yes, the ES 300h is powered by the 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and P314 Hybrid E-CVT transaxle that made their debut last year in the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Besides the notable fuel economy numbers listed above, total system horsepower jumps from 187 in its 2AZ-FXE, 2.4-liter predecessor fitted to the HS 250h to an even 200 in the new ES 300h. Drive Mode Select in the hybrid adds a fourth EV mode (allowing for up to about half a mile at speeds up to 25 mph of gasoline-free operation) to the ES’s Normal, Eco and Sport modes. Unlike the ES 350, however, Sport mode in the hybrid merely increases mid-range acceleration response and does not affect steering feel.

So, how much of a hybrid price premium are we looking at for the ES 300h versus the ES 350? Lexus isn’t saying at this point, since pricing won’t be announced until closer to the August 2012 on-sale date. Quite notably, though, two of the Lexus ES’ Detroit-built rivals (Buick LaCrosse and Lincoln MKZ) currently offer a similar 4-cylinder hybrid (admittedly a marginal mild hybrid in the case of the Buick) or non-hybrid V6 choice with zero price difference between the two. Further complicating any attempted predictions, a Toyota Camry XLE V6 at a base price of $30,115 is actually $2615 more expensive than a Camry XLE Hybrid that starts at $27,500! Regardless of what Lexus winds up doing price-wise, we suspect that their expectation of ES 300h comprising but 25% of 50,000-60,000 total ES sales in the United States is an overly conservative one.

Similarly, the ES 300h engine’s non-hybrid variant, the 2AR-FE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine from the current Toyota Camry, RAV4 and Scion tC powers a third ES variant with a throwback nameplate: ES 250. This model, however, is currently only planned for China, where, Lexus hopes, its tailor-made cavernous rear seat legroom will help it make further inroads into the German carmakers’ dominance of this segment.

…but a newfound driving enthusiasm?!
All this talk of limo-like rear legroom for China runs counter to the unexpected tone taken by Lexus in the United States in anticipation of the 6th-generation of what has been the stereotypical vehicle of choice for affluent retirement communities. Lexus USA’s initial, late March 2012 news release mentions “a new dynamic driving experience”, and its follow-up for the 2012 New York Auto Show unveiling on Wednesday 4 April told us to expect “Improved Steering and Suspension (that) Deliver (a) Crisp, Confident Driving Experience” and “enhanced handling”. To be precise, Lexus strived for a “have your cake and eat it, too” combination of, in their words, unmatched ride comfort with confident handling performance. This has been achieved by numerous detail enhancements and tweaks such as revised rear dual-link strut suspension geometry, improved shock absorber damping characteristics and new opposite-wound coil springs for the MacPherson-strut front suspension. The Electric Power Steering, too, has seen its share of attention, now sporting a quicker ratio (changed from 16.1:1 to 14.8:1), as has enhanced body rigidity via greater use of lightweight, high tensile strength steel, added bracing (especially around the rear suspension) and additional spot welds.

Hmmm… does all this mean that Lexus’ structural, paint and rustproofing regime for the new ES includes a figurative dip in the Fountain of Youth that has allured everyone from Herodotus to Alexander the Great to Juan Ponce de León to Orson Welles to Darren Aronofsky to Donald Duck and Captain Jack Sparrow? At any rate, Lexus certainly expects a rejuvenation of the median age of the model’s owner ranks, down from the current bogey of ages 55-60 (Really? It’s that low?) to a barely-AARP 50-55 age target. But is the new ES up to the goal? As Lexus USA’s Group Vice President and General Manager Mark Templin dared us, “once you get a chance to drive the ES…you’ll experience its crisp, confident driving dynamics”. Let’s see if he’s right…

Step inside…
At a glance, the new ES has many of the next-generation interior touches that mark Lexus’ newest models, such as a hefty, small-diameter sporty steering wheel, a sweeping dashboard with accent stitching, a large, centrally-located display screen below which resides an analog clock and, on the center console, the computer mouse-like Remote Touch interface, all rendered in luxurious, high-quality materials. Someone forgot about the latter, however, when it came to that console, which is made of cheap-looking hard plastic and, surrounding the shifter gate, fragile and easily scratchable piano black. This lamentable bit of cost-cutting is also apparent, to some extent, in the latest Lexus GS. There, however, the stitched padding from the console comes down and covers much of the console sides, and the piano black around the shifter occupies a much smaller area. Here’s hoping that this unfortunate gaffe is remedied in the mid-life facelift, if not sooner. And, while we’re quibbling about the interior, given the current design trend towards a single continuous flow from dashboard to door panels, it’s jarring to see such an abrupt, mismatched and misaligned-looking transition between the two, especially in the passenger side as shown below left.

The rear seat, as promised, is simply stretch-your-legs cavernous. Rear legroom handily exceeds the regular-length Lexus LS (by 4.2″) and is probably closer than the carmaker cares to admit to the long-wheelbase LS’s unpublished figure. Heck, they could probably stick an LS L or Toyota Sienna Limited-style passenger-side rear ottoman legrest back there if they were so inclined. Still, Lexus didn’t fly us all the way to Oregon to luxuriate, Chinese executive-style, in the back seat. Let’s go…

…and drive!
As we set out in a “base” (Premium Package) Nebula Gray ES 350 with black NuLuxe (faux leather) interior, we were pleasantly surprised at the increased level of side bolstering in the front seats. Further proof of Lexus’ serious intent was the fact that, short of racetrack drives for the IS F and LFA, two of the four suggested driving routes Lexus planned in the Newberg, Oregon area for the new ES were actually twistier, more enthusiast-friendly mountain roads than anything offered up by the carmaker in previous 2nd-gen IS, IS C, HS, CT and 4th-gen GS press previews.

So, did the ES 350 lurch and wallow through the twisties with a sloppy mal-de-mer ride? Hardly, and this was probably the most unexpected surprise this author has ever received at a Lexus press preview. The ES hustled and flowed with the curves, the transaxle’s manumatic gate (sorry, no paddles, though they will be offered on its Toyota Avalon sibling) a willing and responsive partner. Even the minimally-changed powertrain just felt better than in the previous ES 350, especially in the new Sport mode, and torque steer seemed better reined in. We couldn’t resist several runs through this quasi-roller coaster of a road. Our only minor quibble is that there seems to be a touch more road noise, especially from the optional 18″ wheels and tires, than we recall in the previous-gen ES. Nothing but a fleeting observation, though, compared to the quantum dynamic leap otherwise. Further proof of how lithe the new ES 350 felt was a later drive through part of the same route in the shorter yet taller Lexus RX 350 AWD F Sport, which felt far more numb and ponderous even with a purported sports suspension and two extra gears in its exclusive 8-speed U880F 8-speed automatic transaxle with paddle shifters.

Taken aback by the ES 350′s newfound willingness, this author later tried the ES 300h along portions of the same route, in Sport mode no less. The hybrid powertrain, while a noticeable improvement from its predecessor in the Lexus HS 250h, is still no match in smoothness or willing get-up-and-go for its V6 non-hybrid sibling. Yet, an average of 35.4 mpg even in those un-hybrid, drive-it-like-you-stole-it conditions is nothing to sneeze at. Then, this author did penance for his decidedly ungreen driving by crawling sheepishly and silently into our resort’s parking lot in EV mode, using nary a drop of gas.

So, would this author choose a Lexus ES over a similarly largish GS or similarly-priced IS? Frankly, no, since the ES remains, ultimately, wrong-wheel-drive and less sporting and engaging than its rear-wheel-drive siblings. Still, the gap is closer than we’d ever imagined it could be, and, after noting similarly drastic improvements in the new 4th-generation GS versus its predecessor after driving both back-to-back, we’re happy to report that Toyota’s newfound commitment, from Akio Toyoda on down, to making more rewarding and involving driver’s cars is gradually but surely coming to fruition. In the case of the new ES, it is chief engineer Toshio Asahi, and not Juan Ponce de León, that gave Lexus’ best-selling sedan a much-needed dip in the Fountain of Youth. More poignantly, it would’ve possibly done the same for my father. Unfortunately, at the age of 84 and with diminishing faculties, it was time for him to hang up the steering wheel, so to speak. A shame, for he would’ve surely enjoyed the best-ever Lexus ES.

Informed Speculation: the 19 new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models to launch during 2012

Ahhh… Pavlov and the conditioned reflex. For those of you that stayed awake during high school science or psychology classes, this was the famous experiment where Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell at the same time as offering a dog food, with the latter making the dog salivate in anticipation. Eventually, the dog was conditioned to salivate simply upon hearing the bell ring, even before the food was actually presented.

Here at Kaizen Factor, however, the conditioned reflex works a bit differently. All it takes is for a senior Toyota official to declare something like, “during (insert year or period of time) Toyota will introduce (insert number) new or updated (possibly having a certain common characteristic) models” for this author to indulge in educated guesswork to figure out what, precisely, those vehicles will be. Indeed, our Informed Speculation series of articles have, in the past, built upon Executive Vice President in charge of Research & Development Takeshi Uchiyamada’s claim that Toyota would release 7 all-new and 4 next-generation versions of existing Toyota and Lexus hybrids by the end of 2012.

Concurrent with the Detroit Auto Show in early January, trade publication Automotive News holds its World Congress get-together of car industry executives. On 10 January 2012, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s Group Vice President and Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter’s speech included this tidbit:

With the improving car market…along with a barrage of 19 new or updated Toyota, Scion and Lexus products…we expect 2012 to be a banner year for Toyota.

Yes, you heard right. We’re going to introduce one new or updated car every 19 days on average this year!

That’s unprecedented in Toyota’s history.

As this author…um…salivates at the prospect of guessing what, precisely those 19 models are, we need to put forth a trio of ground rules. The first is that, given that this particular pronouncement was made by Toyota U.S.A.‘s Bob Carter, we won’t consider models for other markets, such as the Euro-centric Toyota Avensis and Aygo mid-life facelifts or the upcoming made-in-France Yaris Hybrid that have already been revealed.

Second, we’re interpreting this to mean new or updated models launched during calendar year 2012, not necessarily model year 2012. Thus, new 2012 models that went on sale during the late 2011 calendar year such as Toyota’s Camry, Camry Hybrid, Prius v, Yaris and refreshed Tacoma, as well as the new-to-North America Scion iQ are specifically excluded from our listing, logic that is tacitly supported in the 7th paragraph of an article by David E. Zoia of WardsAuto.

Finally, we should note that, given Toyota and Lexus’ penchant for considering hybrid and non-hybrid versions of any given model as two separate versions, they’re probably using that logic in arriving at their 19 model count.

Although not contained in the Toyota USA Newsroom’s draft of Bob Carter’s speech, word soon got out that 9 out of the 19 new or updated models would wear the Lexus badge, at first via the aforementioned David E. Zoia of WardsAuto and the Hans Greimel / Mark Rechtin team from Automotive News, and then officially admitted by Lexus in their first-ever Super Bowl commercial press release. With two Scion-badged debuts expected during 2012, that leaves 8 new or revised Toyotas for the list.

Although listed in seemingly random order, the list can, in fact, be mentally divided into two separate “blocs”. The first 9 are the no-brainers, the Toyota, Scion and Lexus vehicles that have already been officially revealed to the world, in some cases as far back as a year ago or longer, but not available for purchase until the 2012 calendar year. The remaining 10 is where our informed speculation title comes in, with yet-to-be-revealed vehicles whose probabilities vary from highly likely to speculative wild-ass guesses that may well be bumped off the list by something else.

OK, enough qualifyers and preambles. Here’s our Informed Speculation list:

1) Lexus GS 350
With its slow, protracted rollout during 2011 (LF-Gh predictor concept at April’s New York Auto Show; 4th-gen GS 350 debut at Pebble Beach, California in August; GS 350 F Sport premiering at Las Vegas’ SEMA Show; and the debut of the not-for-North America GS 250 at China’s Guangzhou Auto Show, both in November) plus its familiar, predictable exterior styling, the latest iteration of the Lexus GS may not, on the surface, feel particularly “new”, but just wait until its February on-sale rollout, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the generational leap of its interior and, above all, by a driving experience that is miles ahead of its predecessors, one that is certain to produce anxiety attacks in Ingolstadt, Munich and Stuttgart.

2) Lexus GS 450h
The hybrid version of the 4th-generation Lexus GS got its own dedicated public debut at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show. Like its predecessor, this is a performance-oriented hybrid with a 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE V6 that is a hybridized and more powerful derivative of the GS 350 engine. Due to go on sale after its non-hybrid sibling in spring 2012, it is, if anything, even more of an eye-opening improvement over the previous GS 450h. And, if published rumors (notably from England’s Auto Express) turn out to be true, the GS 450h may well be joined by a second more economy and low CO2 emissions-oriented hybrid sibling. Most rumors point towards a GS 300h powered by a variant of the new-for-2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid’s 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder engine. A more remote possibility is a GS 350h powered by a new hybridized variant of the Lexus IS 250 and GS 250′s 4GR-FSE 2.5-liter V6.

3) Toyota Prius c
As Toyota’s Prius branches out into a family of Prii with the larger Prius v (a.k.a. Prius Alpha or Prius+), the subbrand now goes in the opposite direction with the smaller Prius c (for cookie city). This dive into Toyota’s deep parts bin essentially mates the 2550mm (100.4″) wheelbase iteration of the NBC platform (think outgoing Toyota Yaris / Vios / Belta sedan) with the 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter 4 cylinder hybrid powertrain from the 2nd-generation (2004-2009) original Prius. Toyota has put a great deal of effort into making the mechanical components as compact and light as possible and in lowering the center of gravity (a major Toyota goal these days) as Prius c project manager Masahiko Yanagihara informed Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars. About to go on sale in Japan as the Toyota Aqua, the Prius c will be available in the U.S. in March with a starting MSRP below $19,000. Expect it to obliterate what few sales the current 5-door Honda Insight still generates.

4) Toyota Prius Plug-in
After a rather long public introduction period (its North American debut was at the December 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, and this author attended a technical briefing at the South Florida Auto Show in October 2010), the Toyota Prius Plug-in is finally about to go on sale. Its public rollout is just as protracted as its launch was, with order-taking for 14 launch states (California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia) having begun in October 2011 for Spring 2012 delivery, followed by a 2013 national rollout. The Prius Plug-in features a lithium-ion battery that provides an extended electric-only driving range of up to 15 miles at a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour. Charging times are 2.5-3 hours using a standard 120V outlet or 1.5 hours using 240V.

5) Scion FR-S
The most highly anticipated affordable new sports car in a long time finally goes on sale this coming Spring. The phrase “game-changer” has probably devolved into cliché by now, but if any one car truly deserves that description, this is it. The collaboration with Subaru has brought out the best each company has to offer, and red-blooded car enthusiasts are anxiously awaiting its release. Sure, die-hard Toyota fans remind us that none of the company’s golden-age sports cars bore the Scion badge, while others fret that Subaru’s marketing and two trim-level offering for the BRZ are trumping Scion’s traditional mono-spec plans, but all this pales to the hearty celebrations and hosannas for the return of the reliable, affordable rear-wheel-drive Japanese 2+2 sports coupe in new-car showrooms.

6) Toyota Land Cruiser
Many Toyota fans fret over the similarities between the Toyota Land Cruiser and its Lexus LX 570 sibling, eloquently expressed by the Toyota’s ranking among the 10 least-selling vehicles by a mass-market brand. After all, if you’re spending over $70,000 on a super-capable SUV, may as well get one with a luxury badge and its commensurate dealer VIP treatment. So, what does Toyota do for the current Land Cruiser’s first mid-life facelift going on sale this month as a 2013 model? Bring it even closer to the Lexus LX by adding a large, chrome-trimmed body side molding and adding “over $2,500 in new and updated equipment, inside and out” and making the features of the previously optional Upgrade Package standard! Once you get over the eye-popping $77,955 base MSRP for the 2013 Land Cruiser, head on over to Expedition Portal and read Scott Brady’s spot-on take on the subject.

7) Lexus LX 570
Like its Toyota-badged fraternal-verging-on-identical twin described above, the current iteration of Lexus’ top-of-the-line SUV receives its first mid-term refresh. Most obviously, the LX becomes the third model (after the CT and 4th-generation GS) to receive the new-face-of-Lexus spindle grille, as well as new Turn Assist (which tightens the turning circle by adding more brake force to the inside rear wheel) and Multi-terrain Select (allowing for a choice of five types of terrain settings) features. Expect it at your local Lexus dealer in early February with an MSRP of $80,930, or almost $3000 over the Land Cruiser. As we said earlier, a no-brainer which one to go for. By the way, the LX 570, like the Toyota Land Cruiser and 4th-generation Lexus GS, skips the 2012 model year altogether and goes straight from 2011 to extended 2013 model year.

8) Scion iQ EV
After a couple of launch delays, the North America-market Scion iQ was nonetheless barely excluded from our “list of 19″ by virtue of the 248 units sold in the western United States during December 2011. Yet to go on sale, but expected by the end of this calendar year, is a limited run of battery-electric Scion iQ EVs. A Toyota-badged prototype, as shown above, debuted last March at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show. Information on the Toyota USA Newsroom is scant, except to predict a range of less than 50 miles per charge and a small run of cars available only to demonstration programs such as fleets and short-distance urban car-sharing programs. The Integrity Exports website adds that there will be an initial run of 600 cars, with 400 remaining in Japan, 100 earmarked for Europe and the final hundred coming to the United States wearing the Scion badge.

9) Toyota RAV4 EV
Back in May 2010, we amply reported on the Toyota/Tesla collaboration, which, soon enough, begat a Demonstration Vehicle prototype battery electric 3rd-generation Toyota RAV4 EV that debuted at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show with the promise of a late 2012 on-sale date. The carmaker’s second BEV launch this year harkens back to the first RAV4 EV that was available from 1997-2003. Those of you with long memories may recall that this resulted in an odd product cadence where, after the 2001 model year 1st-gen RAV4 EVs were sold alongside newer 2nd-gen gasoline-powered RAV4s. Given that the current RAV4 has been around since the 2006 model year, will history repeat with the post-2013 RAV4 EV an offshoot of the 3rd-generation RAV4 that will soon be superseded by a 4th-generation gasoline version? This author’s admittedly hazy crystal ball says no…

10) Toyota RAV4
With its debut in late 2005 as a 2006 model, the current RAV4 has been the longest-lived gasoline or diesel-powered generation of Toyota’s pioneering small crossover SUV, now in its 7th model year with but a single mid-term refresh in 2009. Would Toyota really launch a RAV4 EV this year in such an aging model? We doubt it. And this author isn’t alone in his skepticism, as Car and Driver‘s Jon Yanca noted that, “Toyota made a point to say that the (2010 RAV4 EV) demonstration vehicles will be based on current-generation cars, which sure makes it sound like the appearance of the fully baked version will coincide with the launch of the next RAV4. So there’s one useful thing we learned—maybe.” Even more useful, however, would be a return to its roots as a short, strictly 2-row seating model such as Japan and Europe get, and not the current North America and Australia super-size that is barely shorter than the Toyota Highlander.

11) Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
With the existence of a Toyota RAV4 EV that will supposedly be available in significantly greater numbers than the 100-car test run of Scion iQ EVs, should we really expect a RAV4 Hybrid? Back in November 2010 this author wrote that, “With all the talk of the full-electric Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV, a separate hybrid RAV4 is unlikely, but you never know.” In retrospect, we feel that prediction to be erroneous, and that we will see a RAV4 Hybrid to plug the price and fuel economy gap between a gasoline and full-electric RAV4. Other factors include the lack of a 4-cylinder hybrid crossover SUV with an all-wheel-drive option in Toyota’s lineup and, to a lesser extent, Ford’s mix of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full-electric variants of its Focus and C-Max lines.

12) Toyota Avalon
Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter’s speech at the Automotive News World Congress also included this enigmatic clue: “You’ll see an outstanding example of a locally developed new product later this year. I can’t say much about it other than its name has a letter “A” or two in it”. While Venza, Sienna, Tundra, Sequoia, maybe Matrix or even an improbable and highly unlikely Solara revival could fit this U.S.-developed description, odds are he’s talking about the 4th-generation Toyota Avalon. The current iteration of Toyota’s full-size front-wheel-drive sedan is certainly overdue for a major change, given its 2005 model year debut and 2 mid-life facelifts. In June 2011, a Toyota dealers’ national meeting in Las Vegas included a preview of both the 2012 Camry and the upcoming Avalon. Reportedly, they were far more excited by the latter, likening the new Avalon’s styling to the Audi A7 and current Jaguar XJ. Given the Avalon’s precedent of Chicago Auto Show debuts, we may well see the newest version of Toyota’s large sedan unveiled at the show’s Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 February press conferences.

13) Lexus ES 350
Where the Toyota Camry goes, the Lexus ES closely follows, at least as far as total makeovers go. Hardly surprising, given their common mechanicals and roots. Current rumors peg the debut of the 6th-generation Lexus ES during the 2012 New York Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 April, alongside the unveiling of the production version its archrival, the smokin’ hot 2nd-generation Lincoln MKZ. Given that the current Lexus ES is the brand’s best-selling model in China (and, in fact, among the 5 top-selling luxury vehicles there), the premium that frequently chauffeur-driven Chinese executives place on rear seat leg room, and no plans for a Chinese market long-wheelbase version of the new GS sedan all suggest that the new ES may well skew closer to Avalon than Camry in size and proportions.

14) Lexus ES 300h
As we reported back in December 2010, Toyota applied for U.S. and Canadian trademarks for ES 300h for use by its Lexus division. Likely to debut alongside its non-hybrid counterpart in New York, the first-ever hybrid Lexus ES will probably share the latest Camry Hybrid’s 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder hybrid engine. Given the rave reviews this new powertrain has received, not to mention its noticeably improved fuel economy versus its 6th-generation Camry Hybrid predecessor, expect this to be the final death knell for the underperforming Lexus HS. Also, don’t be too surprised if, at some point, this Lexus ES and ES h becomes the second Lexus model to be built in North America, be it in Canada’s Cambridge, Ontario South Plant alongside the RX 350 or in the U.S. at a new Lexus-caliber facility within Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky manufacturing complex.

15) Lexus RX 350
Having debuted in November 2008 at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the current 3rd-generation (AL10) Lexus RX is just about due for its mid-life refresh. At a minimum, expect a revised front with Lexus’ new spindle grille, plus new wheel styles and revised taillight inserts for Lexus’ most popular model in the United States. One possible surprise, however, was hinted at by Hans Greimel and Mark Rechtin of Automotive News as they quote Lexus general manager Mark Templin’s statement that “Lexus will launch nine new or updated models this year, plus three F-Sport variations“. With the new GS F-Sport being the first, might an RX 350 F-Sport be the second? Unlikely as this notion may sound to some, don’t forget that the RX currently offers an unheralded Sport Package with sport-tuned suspension and VDIM.

16) Lexus RX 450h
The bulk of what we wrote above for the RX 350, naturally, also goes for its RX 450h hybrid sibling. One probable exception, though, would be the slim likelihood of an RX 450h F-Sport for North America. CT 200h F-Sport notwithstanding, Japan and Europe seem to be far more amenable to the notion of F-Sport hybrids than the New World is. For proof, just look at 4th-generation GS offerings here versus other markets.

17) Lexus LS 460
With the current, 4th-generation (XF40) Lexus LS having debuted for the 2007 model year and received but a single mid-life refresh for 2010, the time seems ripe for the rollout of its 5th-gen successor. Though details are scant-to-nonexistent at this point, we expect a protracted, multi-continent rollout of its diverse variants, akin to what we saw for the 4th-generation Lexus GS. Assuming that April’s 2012 New York Auto Show is earmarked for the ES, possible LS debut venues include Pebble Beach, California in August; Paris in September; and Los Angeles and Guangzhou, China in November. Given that the Lexus LS’s archrivals Audi A8, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class all currently or will soon offer 6-cylinder versions of their flagships even in North America, we wouldn’t be surprised to see an LS 350 powered by the 2GR-FSE 3.5-liter V6. On the reverse side of the coin, might a 5th-gen LS F-Sport be the third new thusly-badged model that Mark Templin was hinting at?

18) Lexus LS 600h
Again, there isn’t much to add to what was said above for the Lexus LS’s hybrid variant. Given the rumored 2-pronged economy hybrid/performance hybrid strategy for the new Lexus GS, plus the current or upcoming availability, even in North America, of diesel-powered Audi A8 and Mercedes S-Class models, an LS 450h powered by the Lexus GS 450h’s 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE hybrid V6 to be sold alongside the LS 600h L and its 2UR-FSE 5-liter hybrid V8 sounds like a natural strategy.

19) mystery large Toyota hybrid
Unexpectedly hinted at during Bob Carter’s Automotive News World Congress speech, this one deserves its own separate Kaizen Factor article. Stay tuned…

Other possibilities
As is the norm for this sort of Informed Speculation articles, there are a number of seemingly more remote, secondary possibilities that may well shove some of these entries off the list. They are definitely worth exploring.

With Scion focused on expanding previously-delayed gasoline-powered iQ availability beyond the U.S. west coast, rolling out the highly-anticipated FR-S coupe and the 100 electric iQ EVs, we wouldn’t expect more from them besides a token Release Series or two of an existing model. What about Scion’s long-standing tradition of always revealing something at the New York Auto Show, you say? More often than not, this is a concept vehicle, as opposed to a new production model, and that’s certainly what we’d expect this year.

At Lexus, some of you may be baffled at the inclusion of the 5th-generation LS ahead of the 3rd-generation IS. After all, the 3rd-generation (S190) GS launch at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show in January was swiftly followed by the 2nd-generation (XE20) IS debut at Geneva in March of that year. Our rationale is that the current LS has received only a single mid-cycle refresh and no talk of a delay from its traditional 6-year cycle between major changes, whereas the current IS has received two mid-cycle refreshes amidst talk of a 1-year delay versus original 3rd-gen launch plans. Thus, IS can more logically stand to be released after LS.

There are also hopes that the trademarked-in-mid-2009 CT 300h name might become an actual, more powerful option for the successful entry-level Lexus CT line. But would a new engine option without a mid-cycle refresh count as one of the 19 anyway? We’d guess not. As to rumors of a sub-RX, RAV4 based Lexus SUV or a larger, 7-seat crossover, sure, they’d be logical additions to the line, but with Lexus’ hands full juggling the cadence of renewing its four core sedan lines, don’t expect to see them as production vehicles debuting during this calendar year.

Toyota’s broad model line, of course, makes for the largest margin of error on this list. Starting at the bottom, the new-for-2012 in North America 3rd-generation (XP130) Toyota Yaris hatchbacks are still awaiting a notchback sedan sibling. But will it ever come? Just over two years after the newest Yaris debuted in Japan as the Toyota Vitz, we are still awaiting the next generation of its Japanese Domestic Market sedan counterpart, the Belta. And no new Belta nor Yaris sedan also means no new Vios for southeast Asia. With Honda and Mazda adopting a no-sedan-for-North America strategy for their Yaris-rivaling Fit and 2 lines, Toyota may well be following suit.

Corolla and Matrix? Nah. The North American Corolla appears one year later than its Japanese Corolla and European Auris siblings, and the latter isn’t expected to be unveiled until this September’s Paris Auto Show. The Sienna minivan? Another unlikely, since the 2011 model year debut of its 3rd-generation puts its mid-term refresh at some point next year at the earliest. Highlander? With the current model’s 2011 model year mid-life facelift, also improbable. On the other hand, their Venza sibling is a prime candidate for bumping something off the list, since it has been around since the 2009 model year without the benefit of a mid-term refresh. A 2013 model year mid-term refresh at the end of this year for the current, new-for-2010 Toyota 4Runner and its Lexus GX 460 sibling also rates a maybe, while our esteemed co-editor Flipside909 has also suggested the possibility of a second mid-term refresh for the Tundra and Sequoia.

As Toyota further extends its Japan shutdown, a picture emerges on which models will run out first

To hardly anyone’s surprise, Toyota has announced yet another extension of its vehicle-production halt at all plants in Japan (including subsidiary vehicle manufacturers) until at least Saturday 26 March (a previously-scheduled Saturday production day), as reported on Toyota’s USA and Global Newsrooms. This newly extended shutdown brings the estimated loss of production units to about 140,000 since the earthquakes and tsunami struck. About 60% of those vehicles, or 84,000, would have been export bound. This was followed by cautionary warnings of likely production interruptions in North America of indeterminate location or duration. A Reuters article, citing Toyota spokesman Craig Mullenbach, suggests that the company’s San Antonio, Texas plant that builds slow-selling Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks is the likeliest North American production facility to be idled.

In better news, the previously-announced resumption of replacement parts production on Thursday 17 March and of parts for overseas production facilities on Monday 21 March was reaffirmed, along with word that all 13 North American vehicle and engine plants are, for now, running normally, although overtime has been curtailed to conserve parts that come from suppliers in Japan.

Meanwhile, a story from the British-based (and limited access) just-auto.com site brings us an update from Toyota Kirloskar Motor (TKM), Toyota’s importer, assembler and distributor in India. Sandeep Singh, TKM’s deputy managing director informs us that most parts are sourced from from Thailand and Indonesia and there would be no immediate threat to the Indian operations as stocks for the current month are sufficient and components ordered earlier are also on the way. Still, he cautiously adds that “We are still assessing the situation and would likely be in a better position to comment on that in the next few days”.

Also reporting updates is the Guangzhou Toyota operation in south China via a Reuters story. The company states that, given 90%-95% Chinese content of locally-built Toyota Camrys plus current stocks of Japanese-sourced parts, they should be fine until mid-April. The article also estimates that current inventory of Lexus vehicles in China is sufficient to sustain sales for two months.

A recent iteration of the Toyota USA Newsroom’s earthquake and tsunami statement ends by saying that “Regarding dealerships in the U.S., inventories remain generally good”. While that may certainly be the case at present, most pundits think that by the time April ends, the situation may be very different, especially insofar as Toyota and Lexus models sourced from Japan. The uncertainty and pessimism hinges around two basic facts. For one, while the majority of Toyota factories and their larger (Tier 1) suppliers are based around the Tokyo and Toyota City areas that are hundreds of miles from the major earthquake and tsunami epicenter, that is not necessarily the case with smaller, almost mom-and-pop Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers and machine shops. Depending on the vehicle and who you listen to, a modern car has somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 individual parts, and if even one of them is missing, you certainly can’t produce the vehicle. Honda and Nissan have reported difficulties or an outright inability to contact over 40 of these small suppliers, and it’s most likely that Toyota is in this same situation. The second issue, as Michael Smitka, professor of economics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia said in a Bloomberg article, “You can’t get trucks in and out of the area affected by the disaster. In some cases, a road or bridge may be open, but with only one lane available. Are you going to try to put through a shipment of machinery at the expense of getting through a shipment of food?” Oh, and don’t forget to add the disruption added by rolling power blackouts due to the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant drama.

Although predicting the future supply situation of any given vehicle is an imprecise guessing game, two articles provide valuable data that sheds a faint light on the subject, not just for Toyota but for Japan’s major automakers. The first of these was written by Bill Visnic of Edmunds AutoObserver, and was already cited as a source for our recent Subaru update. The second is a study by Hans Greimel of Automotive News of the 20 top-selling Japan-built models sold in the United States and their recent sales numbers. Combining data from these two sources, plus a sprinkling of information from other articles allows us to compile this cautious and admittedly hazy snapshot of what to expect supply-and-demand-wise from a number of imported-from-Japan Toyota and Lexus models in the coming months:

Toyota Prius
With 140,928 units sold in 2010, plus a further 24,174 units in January and February 2011, the Prius is currently Toyota’s best-selling Japanese import vehicle in the United States. Given its rise in popularity concurrent with the rise in gasoline prices, it is often cited alongside the Nissan Leaf and Honda Fit as one of the three vehicles most threatened by low supply and high demand, a situation further exacerbated by one of three Toyota/Panasonic Primearth EV battery-making facilities being among the most affected by the Japanese natural disasters.

A report from Edmunds AutoObserver from Monday 21 March affirms that consideration of the Prius among online shoppers is up more than 30% since the beginning of the year, triple the 11% increase in consideration of all hybrids and of all small cars in general, with one Pennsylvania dealer reporting a quadrupling of interest. Yet, at this point, supply still seems reasonable (with California’s Longo Toyota reporting about a 30-day supply) and there are few if any reports of over-MSRP selling. Some dealers are selling Prii at MSRP, while Tony Gmitrovic of Elmhurst Toyota in the suburban Chicago, Illinois area reports that “while Prius hybrids are still going out the door at below MSRP, instead of at $700 to $800 below we’re seeing them go at $400 to $500 under.” Two days later, the Detroit Free Press quoted TrueCar.com‘s Jesse Toprak as stating that, “American consumers are paying at least $2,000 more for a Toyota Prius than they would have paid before the crisis began… Prius went from selling about $300 under invoice three weeks ago to selling right at the MSRP since the earthquake.”

This may be a short-lived situation, however, as the Toyota USA Newsroom has just announced that on Monday 28 March Toyota will restart production of the Prius at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City.

The Prius’ larger Prius v/Prius+ sibling’s launch in Japan, originally slated for late April, has become the first new model debut postponement as a result of the Japanese earthquakes, a fact announced via a Toyota USA Newsroom press release. Seemingly unaffected, at this point, are the late summer 2011 U.S. release of Prius v and the “first half of 2012″ on-sale date for Prius+ in Europe.

Toyota RAV4
Given that the RAV4 has been made in Canada since 4 November 2008, it may seem odd to see it listed here. A glance at Toyota’s February 2011 sales chart, however, reveals that just over 23% of RAV4s sold in the U.S. thus far in 2011 are imported from Japan. It remains to be seen if the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if, to the contrary, a lack of parts will also bring Canada to a halt. We should also note that the current RAV4 is due for a next-generation makeover no later than the 2013 model year.

Lexus ES
Perennially Lexus’ best-selling car (as opposed to crossover SUV), the ES is cited by Edmunds AutoObserver as being among the company’s models most at risk of low supplies by the industry’s Days to Turn metric. Defined as the average number of days vehicles were in dealer inventory before being sold during the month(s) indicated, the ES’s 26-day supply for February 2011 and a probably lower-than-average additional supply for March may translate into serious shortages as soon as mid-April.

The fact that the current Lexus ES isn’t even offered in either the Japanese Domestic Market nor in Europe, with the bulk of its production destined for North America, as well as its strong under-the-skin kinship with the made-in-America Toyota Camry, and it is little surprise that every time a fiscal or political U.S./Japan crisis flares up, rumors start to run amok regarding North American Lexus ES production. The great Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 may well be the tipping point that finally makes this happen.

Toyota 4Runner
With all the talk of the traditional body-on-frame, truck-based SUV such as the 4Runner being an endangered species, it comes as something of a surprise to see it appear so prominently on these lists. Yet, with a notable sales upturn for the 5th-generation model that debuted for the 2010 model year, the 4Runner is #10 among the top 20 best-selling Japanese-built vehicles in the U.S., and its 35-day supply on February 2011 implies that getting one after late April could be a dicey proposition.

Toyota Yaris
Predictions surrounding the Toyota Yaris are probably the most complex and convoluted you’ll find in this article. Edmunds AutoObserver informs us that the current Yaris Days To Turn figure in the U.S. is well over 100 days, thus hinting that current inventory won’t sell out until as late as July. Things are not that simple, however, as another spike in gasoline prices as a side-effect of the current war in Libya (or further spread of Middle East unrest) coupled with dwindling Prius stocks could well drive renewed demand for one of the U.S. market’s most fuel-economical non-hybrid vehicles.

Also, the current, 2nd-generation Yaris is winding down its last model year, and its 3rd-generation successor went on sale in Japan in late December 2010, as well as appearing as a Yaris HSD Hybrid concept for Europe at this month’s Geneva Auto Show. With the Prius v/Prius+ Japanese launch already delayed, the same fate may well behold the 3rd-generation Yaris launch outside Japan. Even worse for the U.S. market, the bulk of current Yaris sedan production (also sold as Toyota Belta or Vios in other markets), as well as 3rd-generation Yaris for North America and the Middle East is or would be served from the Central Motor Company facility in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai, ground zero for the tsunami of Wednesday 9 March. While the plant is located back near the mountains, away from the shoreline where the tsunami made landfall, and reported damage to its wall and some pipes but no major structural or equipment problems, the state of its nearby infrastructure imply that this may well be Toyota’s last Japanese plant to reach any semblance of normal production. Toyota is surely brainstorming alternatives, and radical possibilities include sourcing Yaris production for North America from Europe’s Valenciennes, France plant or even this author’s suggestion that Yaris be built in Mexico.

Toyota Corolla
Another unexpected entry in the list is the Toyota Corolla. Its situation is much like that of the RAV4 mentioned earlier, with Canadian output supplemented by Japan-built vehicles that comprised just over 24% of U.S. Corolla sales. Again, it remains to be seen to what extent the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if a lack of parts will eventually bring Canada to a halt. Probably mitigating the Corolla situation, however, is on-again construction of Toyota’s Blue Springs, Mississippi factory, tentatively slated to begin production of the Corolla this coming fall.

Lexus IS
The overall 15th best-selling Japanese-built vehicle in the U.S. for 2010, Lexus’ smallest rear-wheel-drive sports sedan line currently has a 31-day Days To Turn figure in the U.S. for the IS 250, a bit over the ES’s 26-day figure. Thus, Lexus ISs could start becoming scarce by the end of April.

Lexus RX
You may be forgiven for wondering why Hans Griemel’s Automotive News article ranks the Lexus RX below its ES and IS stablemates as the 19th-best-selling Japanese vehicle imported into the United States for 2010 (and outside the top 20 for 2011) when it is, in fact, the marque’s best-selling vehicle here. The answer, again, is the same as for the Toyota RAV4 and Corolla: a mix of Canadian and Japanese sourcing. The latter comprises 30% of all Lexus RXs sold in the U.S., including all hybrid RX 450h models.

Does Lexus have the capability of sourcing RX Hybrids from North America as well? Tentatively, yes, but the logistics may not be all that easy, given that only the Cambridge, Ontario plant is geared to Lexus levels of fit-and-finish and quality, while only Kentucky has hybrid powertrain assembly expertise with the Camry.

Lexus LX
Although a niche, low-volume model, Lexus’ top-of-the-line SUV currently has but a 26-day supply on hand at dealers as of February 2011, just like its ES sibling. This implies that stocks could begin running seriously low as soon as mid-April. It would be interesting to see how that figure compares to the very similar Toyota Land Cruiser.

Lexus LS
The luxury carmaker’s flagship sedan, the Lexus LS, though far from being the marque’s volume leader, currently reports a 34 Days to Turn inventory, which probably means meager selection at U.S. Lexus dealers by the time the end of April rolls around.

Lexus CT
The Japanese natural disasters couldn’t have come at a worse time vis-à-vis the launch of Lexus’ newest volume model line, the premium compact hybrid CT. With the bulk of Lexus’ advertising and marketing initiatives for 2011 (some of them quite unorthodox and youth-oriented) directed towards the CT 200h, many feared that it would all become a monumentally wasted effort. Indeed, anecdotal evidence coming out of California already conveys tight CT supplies for the demand that’s out there. Fortunately, The Lexus CT is one of a trio of vehicles (along with the Toyota Prius and another Lexus that we’ll discuss shortly) that will see a resumption of production in Japan on Monday 28 March. Thus, Lexus’ Kyushu plant joins the Toyota Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City as the only two of the automaker’s facilities producing vehicles in the motherland.

Frankly, it makes all the sense in the world for Lexus to put its current diminished resources behind CT. After all, this is the vehicle that is expected to exponentially increase the marque’s sales in Europe, and interest in North America has also been heightened by the recent runup in gasoline prices.

Lexus HS
Toyota’s decision to prioritize Japanese production of Prius and Lexus CT, as noted earlier, is a sound one that may well be described as a no-brainer. Much more puzzling, however, is awarding this vaunted status to Lexus’ HS 250h. After all, this is a model that isn’t offered in Europe, was ultimately turned down by Australia and has sold well below expectations in North America. Granted, it’s Lexus’ best-selling model in the Japanese Domestic Market, but who in Japan would currently have their mind on car-shopping? Yet, the fact that it is built alongside the Lexus CT in Kyushu, its degree of platform and component commonality with Prius and CT, plus a possible decent supply of parts probably made a case for its inclusion in the upcoming reopening of Japanese production. Hopefully, parts inventories and logistics permitting, the Kyushu plant is flexible enough to adjust CT vs HS production. Or, perhaps, HS will finally begin to gain some sales traction in the U.S. It may already be doing so in California, at any rate.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1:
Bertel Schmitt – The Truth About Cars
Other Photos: Toyota USA Newsroom

Lexus and Toyota’s newest registered trademarks: ES 300h and HSD

As we reminded you in an earlier Kaizen Factor story, poking around trademark and copyright applications and registrations filed by carmakers can provide vital clues to their possible future plans. We have just learned of two new trademark applications filed by Toyota Motor Corporation.

The first of these, HSD, was filed on 23 November 2010 under U.S. Trademark Application No. 85183366 and Canadian Trade-Mark Application No. 1504968. This one is rather anticlimactic: it appears that the HSD suffix (an abbreviation for Hybrid Synergy Drive) will become a hybrid model designator in the United States and Canada, just as it is already in Europe (starting with the Toyota Auris HSD).

The second one is only mildly more surprising: ES 300h. After all, we did mention this possibility in a recent Kaizen Factor story. This trademark was registered just over a week ago, on 8 December 2010, as U.S. Trademark Application No. 85193249 and Canadian Trade-Mark Application No. 1507011.

ES 300h is actually the second “300h” trademark registered by Toyota for use by its Lexus marque, after CT 300h. In Lexus hybrid-speak, this will use a 4-cylinder engine of less than 3-liters that, when coupled with the hybrid’s battery system, will provide the performance of a 3-liter V6. Given that the current 2.4-liter 4-cylinder 2AZ-FXE hybrid powertrain is designated by Lexus as an HS 250h, expect an ES 300h to pack a larger and more powerful engine, most likely a 2AR-FXE hybrid powertrain derived from the newer 2.5-liter 2AR-FE 4-cylinder engine. Or it might be a 1AR-FXE hybrid powertrain based on the slightly larger 2.7-liter 4-cylinder 1AR-FE engine from the current Toyota Venza, Highlander and Sienna.

At any rate, it seems that the Lexus ES 300h will share its entire drivetrain with the Camry HSD version of the upcoming 7th-generation of what is still the most popular car in the U.S.

Our thanks to k3vo for providing this information

Informed Speculation: The 7 new Toyota and Lexus hybrids due by the end of 2012


Coinciding with the public debut at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show of the Toyota RAV4 EV Demonstration Vehicle jointly developed by Toyota and Tesla, a press release in the Toyota USA Newsroom ends with this sentence: “Finally, by the end of 2012, Toyota will add seven all new (not next-generation) hybrid models to its portfolio”. Just what, precisely, are those seven vehicles? Toyota, naturally, isn’t saying at this point. But that never stopped a future product-obsessed übercargeek like yours truly from indulging in some intelligent guesswork and informed speculation on what those might be.

First, though, some ground rules. The aforementioned sentence in the Toyota USA Newsroom’s RAV4 EV press release is preceded by this passage: “Toyota has announced that coinciding with the arrival of the RAV4 EV in 2012 it will launch, in key global markets, the Prius PHV (plug-in hybrid) and a small EV commuter vehicle. It will also launch, in key global markets, its first commercialized hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in calendar year 2015, or sooner.” Thus, it is obvious that those vehicles are specificaly excluded from the seven all-new hybrids in question. Also, the “all new (not next-generation) hybrid” qualifier specifically excludes the hybrid variants of the 4th-generation Lexus GS and 7th-generation Toyota Camry that are due out within that time frame, given that their immediate predecessors already offer hybrid versons. Finally, the wording of that passage seems to allow room for Lexus-branded vehicles as well as for hybrid models that won’t be offered in North America but will be available in Japan and/or Europe. Here, then, is a listing, in no particular order, of what this Kaizen Factor author believes will be the seven all-new and unprecedented hybrids that will be released by the end of calendar year 2012 (thus allowing for a 2013 model year designation):

Toyota Prius MPV (also referred to as Prius Alpha or Prius Verso)
This is the first and most obvious of the seven new hybrids to be released. Already teased at the 10 Years of Prius Anniversary Celebration that took place on 10.10.10 in Malibu, California via the “Prius Puzzle” that was the subject of a YouTube video whose final shot appears above, it is widely expected to debut at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show on 10 or 11 January 2011. That photo implies that this new, taller Prius may well draw its inspiration from 2007′s Hybrid-X concept. At any rate, this is predicted to be a 3-row seating mini-minivan to rival the Mazda5 in North America and a plethora of such vehicles available in Europe.

Most pundits (this author included) believe that it will be powered by yet another application of the 2ZR-FXE 1.8-liter 4-cylinder powertrain from the 3rd-generation Toyota Prius, Toyota Auris HSD and Lexus CT 200h, albeit tweaked for a bit more power (some reports state 138 hp combined, versus the 134 hp of the aforementioned models). On the other hand, Road & Track‘s Nick Kurczewski states that this may be the vehicle to debut the long-overdue hybrid powertrain based on the 2AR-FE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine from the latest Toyota Camry, RAV4 and Scion tC, possibly (but not likely) featuring a lithium-ion battery pack versus the current nickel-metal hydride batteries.

As to the precise model name, MPV is (Mazda’s use of the initials as a model name notwithstanding) an abbreviation for multi-purpose vehicle, the generic European name for a tall 2 or 3-row seating 5-door hatchback. A mini-minivan, in other words and, as such, unlikely to be used by Toyota. Prius Alpha, though reportedly the name according to several news outlets, is probably a nonstarter as well, given the potential for confusion with Alfa Romeo. Prius Verso is the likeliest name, given that Toyota has in the past used the Verso badge to denote MPV derivatives of the Yaris, Corolla and Avensis. Current policy of making Verso (and Verso-S) stand-alone badges in Europe may work against this, though, as well as potential confusion between Venza and Verso in North America.

Also pictured below is a teaser shot, posted on Facebook, of the “Prius MPV”‘s instrument panel center stack.

“Baby Prius”, based on Toyota FT-CH concept
Generally touted as the predictor for the third and smallest member of the Prius family, Toyota unveiled the FT-CH concept at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show. Although stating that its overall length of 153″ (3895mm) is 22″ shorter than the current Prius 5-door while almost matching the larger car’s 68.7″ width, Toyota has been notably coy about revealing its wheelbase. Both Autoguide.com and Consumer Reports, however, claim the magic number is 100″ (2550mm), or spot-on the Yaris 4-door sedan’s wheelbase. Frankly, this doesn’t really say much on whether the baby Prius will be based on a cut-down version of the Prius’ MC architecture or on the longer version of the Yaris’ NBC architecture (we suspect the latter), but this does provide a handy segue to…

Toyota Yaris HSD
With the 3rd-generation of the Toyota Yaris expected to debut during calendar year 2011 as a 2012 model and images already having leaked online, plus a story from the Mid-Japan Economist as reported by Reuters on 7 September of this year that Toyota plans to begin producing a hybrid version of the Yaris subcompact at its factory in Valenciennes, France, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that this is the third Toyota hybrid in question. Don’t expect to see it in the U.S., however, as here the Yaris is too much of an entry-level vehicle for the cost-conscious to withstand a hybrid’s MSRP premium, and, notably, Honda also decided against selling its directly-competing Fit Hybrid in North America .

Do expect, however, to see both the “baby Prius” and Yaris HSD to be powered by something smaller and more fuel-efficient than the current Prius drivetrain. Prominent German automotive journalist Georg Kacher once erroneously predicted that the Euro-only Toyota Auris HSD hybrid (a Corolla variant) would use the 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter 4-cylinder powertrain from the 2nd-generation Toyota Prius. He may have been right, however, insofar as these new smaller models. After all, its non-hybrid, Otto cycle variant, the 1NZ-FE propels the current 2nd-generation Yaris in North America.

Toyota Avensis HSD
Given that the current, 3rd-generation Toyota Avensis is built exclusively at the Burnaston plant in Derbyshire, England alongside its smaller Corolla-derived Auris sibling; that the latter’s HSD hybrid variant’s powertrain comes from the nearby Deeside engine factory; that said new variant debuted as part of the current Auris’ mid-life facelift (the 3rd-gen Avensis has yet to see its own mid-life facelift); and that Toyota Europe rejected the Lexus HS 250h mostly for its proximity to the top-of-the-line Toyota Avensis T Spirit, and it’s just a matter of putting two and two together and figuring that history may well repeat and see a Toyota Avensis HSD variant within the now-2012 time frame.

Not so obvious, however, is the powertrain question. The most expedient solution would be to, again, use the 2ZR-FXE 1.8-liter 4-cylinder from the 3rd-generation Toyota Prius, Toyota Auris HSD and Lexus CT 200h. Given that the gasoline-only 1.8-liter Avensis is already about 50-100 lbs heavier than the Prius and CT 200h without the latter two’s hybrid battery pack, and it may be asking too much to use 1.8-liter hybrid power for the Avensis. On the other hand, the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus HS 250h’s 2AZ-FXE powertrain is not only somewhat outdated but probably too large for displacement-conscious Europe. A handy and logical solution, it would seem, may be to create a 3ZR-FXE 2-liter 4-cylinder hybrid powertrain from the 3ZR-FE 2-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine that already powers the Avensis in some markets, and this might even work for the upcoming Toyota “Prius MPV”.

Toyota Sienna Hybrid
Of the seven vehicles here, this may, on the surface, appear to be the iffiest long shot. Yet, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult or far-fetched to imagine the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 450h’s 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6-based hybrid powertrain making its way to the Sienna minivan, the largest and roomiest of the FWD-platform V6 Toyotas. This would certainly give new meaning to the whole Swagger Wagon concept!

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Lexus IS h
With the Lexus IS line the marque’s current strongest seller in Europe (albeit soon to be surpassed by the CT 200h) and a move towards a hybrid-only strategy for the Old Continent by 2013 (as confirmed by Vice President of Lexus Europe Andy Pfeiffenberger), at least one hybrid version of the 3rd-generation Lexus IS, (expected to debut during 2012 as a 2013 model) is certainly to be expected. This would seemingly be an IS 350h powered by the IS 250′s 4GR-FSE 2.5-liter V6 plus a hybrid battery pack, roughly equalling the output of a typical 3.5-liter V6. Markets outside Europe could, theoretically, also see more powerful IS 400h (3GR-FSE 3-liter V6 plus hybrid motor) and even IS 450h (2GR-FSE 3.5-liter V6 plus hybrid motor) variants.

Lexus ES h
The Lexus ES, like its Toyota Camry parent, is due for the launch of a new generation within the now-2012 time frame, and it would only make sense for the carmaker to use the occasion to create an ES h model. The only question is whether it would skew towards economy and borrow the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus HS 250h’s 2AZ-FXE powertrain (or, more sensibly, a 2AR-FXE successor based on the newer 2.5-liter 2AR-FE 4-cylinder engine), creating, say, an ES 300h; or towards performance by using the Lexus RX 450h’s 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6-based hybrid powertrain and making for an ES 450h. We’d suggest the latter, especially with the Lexus ES’s traditional focus on smoothness and quietness and with HS and CT series already holding down the fuel economy fort.

Other possibilities
While we strongly feel that these are the seven likeliest all-new hybrids, there are, of course, other more remote possibilities. There has been some talk that the so-called “Prius MPV” may come in shorter 2-row and longer 3-row variants, echoing other carmakers’ offerings in this segment (Ford of Europe, Renault, Nissan and Citroën come to mind) and Toyota’s own current RAV4/Vanguard in the Japanese Domestic Market. If that turns out to be the case, they may count as two separate vehicles. With all the talk of the full-electric Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV, a separate hybrid RAV4 is unlikely, but you never know. It could also be that larger Camry-based offshoots not mentioned above, such as Toyota Avalon and Venza may, instead be the beneficiaries of hybridization. Conversely, going smaller, a Toyota Corolla or Matrix Hybrid would dovetail neatly from its Auris HSD fraternal twin, but if it wasn’t released concurrently with its just-announced mid-term facelift, don’t count on it. And the release of its all-new successor probably falls just outside the end-of-2012 window for the seven all-new hybrid Toyotas. Finally, we can’t discount the possibility that those seven new models include obscure, low-volume models sold exclusively in Japan, such as the Lexus HS-derived Toyota Sai.