DETROIT – Toyota Motor Corp. wants to sell 400,000 third-generation Prius hybrid-electric vehicles worldwide annually by 2010, the auto maker reveals during the model’s unveiling at the North American International Auto Show here.

Toyota will extend the HEV’s reach by retailing it in 80 countries, nearly twice that of the current model.

The auto maker sets its lofty sales goal without the benefit of its Blue Springs, MS, manufacturing plant, whose construction has been halted until the U.S. economy recovers, says Jim Lentz, president-Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Toyota was to begin production at Blue Spring in 2010 but recently pulled the plug on the 90%-complete facility, which was to have planned capacity for 150,000 units.

Toyota’s U.S. sales goal for the third-generation Prius in its first full calendar year is 180,000, nearly matching the hybrid’s best-ever 181,221, Ward’s data shows.

Since its debut in 1997, the Prius has sold more than 1 million units in a total of 44 countries, says Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager for TMSUSA’s Toyota Div.

The latest Prius, which goes on sales in the U.S. and Japan this spring, is estimated to achieve 50 mpg (4.7 L/100 km), according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Although the Prius bests rival Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s lower-priced Insight, which is estimated to achieve 40/43 mpg (5.9L-5.5 L/100 km) city/highway,

Lentz believes the two cars will carve out their own niche, appealing to different sets of buyers. He tells reporters the Insight is a good, because it will help promote hybrids.

“You’re going to have Honda at the entry end. You’re going to have Prius kind of in the center, and you’re going to have (the) Lexus (HS 250h) on the luxury side,” he says. “It gives consumers clear choices, a large array of hybrid products.”

Toyota officials reiterate here the auto maker’s long-standing goal to sell 1 million hybrids worldwide sometime next decade. And the auto maker announced Saturday plans to offer 10 new or redesigned hybrids globally, including the Prius and HS 250h, by early next decade.

Lentz says in order to do this, Toyota must sell “in excess of 500,000” hybrid units per year in the U.S.

Toyota already is the leading seller of hybrids in the U.S. but still is far off from hitting a half-million units in a single year, with 2008 sales of just 241,405.

Prius sales in recent months have collapsed, down 44.7% in December, as gas prices have plummeted and consumer confidence has slumped, due to the country’s recession.

Lentz also believes current Prius sales fell because photos of the ’10 model were leaked, causing potential buyers to wait until the newer models arrives in showrooms.

Lentz still likes the idea of a suite of hybrids under the Prius marquee but is closed-mouth on when this might happen, or whether Toyota is developing variants of the ’10 Prius.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about having a number of different vehicles under the umbrella of the Prius name,” he says. “That’s something we’re still studying.

“From a marketing standpoint, the most efficient way to sell more hybrids is under the Prius name. That’s my personal opinion. Right now, we’re looking at…what would it mean to be (a) Prius?”

Lentz hints models that would wear the Prius moniker would be like-sized. “I don’t foresee us taking (the) Highlander Hybrid (large cross/utility vehicle) and turning it into a ‘Prius Highlander Hybrid.’”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com