As Toyota works at the Detroit show, it will be trying to convince customers that there is still mileage in the gas-electric hybrid technology it pioneered more than a decade ago with its Prius. The Prius, the world's first mass-produced hybrid car, accelerates and runs at low speeds on an electric motor and batteries, with a gasoline engine kicking in at higher speeds.
In ads on television and YouTube, Toyota has been previewing a new addition to the Prius lineup that it will introduce at the auto show. "I can't show you everything just yet, but here's a sneak peek," a skateboarder says in one of the ads as he zooms past a car shrouded in a black veil, which billows up just long enough to reveal the car's outline. Toyota might be on the defensive, if only because of its many reputation-tarnishing recalls in the last year. But the automaker is particularly vexed to find itself having to restate its credentials as the industry's environmental leader, something it has had little trouble claiming since it introduced the Prius in 1997.
Nissan, one of Toyota's main Japanese rivals, calls its new battery-powered Leaf hatchback the world's first mass-produced, all-electric vehicle. Its ad campaign for the United States features a polar bear running from a melting ice cap to hug a Leaf owner in a big city meant to evoke San Francisco. The tag line: "Innovation for the planet, innovation for all." A resurgent G.M., meanwhile, is claiming a breakthrough with the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that runs on rechargeable batteries for up to 50 miles before a gasoline engine kicks in. Last month, at the Economic Club of Washington, G.M.'s chief executive, Daniel F. Akerson, called the Toyota Prius a "geek-mobile" that he would never want to drive.
But Toyota, even as it emphasizes the company's environmental record, is skeptical of all-electric vehicles. It remains committed to the hybrid technology, which it has spent at least $1 billion to develop. By the end of 2012, the company plans to introduce six new hybrid vehicles and says that all its models will come in hybrid versions by 2020.
"Customers are going to ultimately decide what kind of car they want to drive," said Keisuke Kirimoto, a Toyota spokesman based in Tokyo. "And whatever customers choose, we will be there."
The Prius has already exceeded Toyota's own expectations. In 2005, the company said it hoped to sell a million of the hybrid vehicles worldwide over five years; by September 2010, it had sold twice that many. And within Japan, helped by generous tax incentives, the Prius has been the country's top-selling car for the last 19 months.
Earlier this week, Robert S. Carter, Toyota's vice president for United States sales, told analysts that the company expected the Prius to become its best-selling car in the American market by the end of the decade.
And Toyota's top executives are quick to highlight the uncertainties surrounding purely electric vehicles. "We still predict the spread of electric vehicles will be extremely slow," Atsushi Niimi, an executive vice president at Toyota, said at a year-end briefing.
Many analysts share Toyota's skepticism. J. D. Power & Associates, the market research company, predicts that in 2020 only 1.3 million of the 70.9 million cars projected to be sold worldwide that year will be all-electric - fewer than 2 percent. Even optimistic analysts put the figure at no more than 5 percent.
The concerns include low horsepower, the reliability of electric technology and the prospect of the charge running out while the car is being driven. Although battery technology has improved in recent years, both nickel-metal hydride and the more powerful lithium ion batteries remain bulky, vulnerable to heat and expensive to produce. The price premium of an electric car over a gasoline one could also deter consumers, if gasoline prices continue to hold fairly steady.
Still, some analysts say Toyota risks losing its edge if it does not keep abreast of advances in zero-emissions technology.
"It is dangerous for Toyota to insist on sticking to its hybrid-focused strategy," said Yasuaki Iwamoto, an auto analyst at Okasan Securities in Tokyo. "Just like it was a leader in hybrid technology, it should be jumping out in front in electric-vehicle technology," he said. "If it doesn't, it will be difficult for Toyota to regain its image as a leader in the environment space."
By at least one measure, Toyota has not lost that image in the first place. According to Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey, released on Wednesday, Toyota is the leader in the "environmentally friendly/green" category, which the survey says helped it hold onto its title as the most recognizable car brand in the United States. Without Toyota's big ratings in the green category, Ford would have claimed the overall top score, Consumer Reports said.
While it remains committed to hybrids, Toyota is hedging its bets on electric technology. In late 2009 it developed and started leasing a small number of its own plug-in hybrid vehicles, which have a range of about 13 miles before the gasoline engine starts. The model is scheduled to go on sale next year.
And last May, Toyota invested $50 million in the Silicon Valley electric car start-up Tesla Motors. It signed a separate $60 million deal with Tesla to develop a fully electric vehicle to run on lithium-ion battery packs. The two showed off a prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.
Toyota is also developing its own tiny all-electric vehicle, which it says it will begin selling in 2012. But the company takes pains to say the battery-powered car will serve a niche market of drivers making only very short commutes.
Toyota, however, needs more than niche markets to help it after a year marred by recalls of some 11 million vehicles - including the Prius - for faulty gas pedals, floor mats that could trap accelerators or braking and engine defects. Those flaws, as well as Toyota's handling of the recalls, have tarnished its reputation for safety.
Toyota's sales in the United States have suffered as a result. Earlier this week the company reported declines for December and for all of 2010, saying sales fell 5.5 percent last month from a year earlier and 0.4 percent for the year. That made Toyota the biggest loser in a recovery year for the overall United States auto market, which grew 11.1 percent in 2010 from a year earlier to 11.6 million cars, according to the research firm, Autodata.
That is why so much is riding on Toyota as it heads to the Detroit auto show.
"Last year, we caused people a lot of concern," Toyota's chief executive, Akio Toyoda, said on Wednesday in Tokyo. "But we also learned a lot," he said.
Asked by the public broadcaster NHK to think of a word to describe Toyota's strategy for 2011, Mr. Toyoda smiled.
The New York Times