DETROIT – When Toyota Motor Corp.’s hybrid-powered Prius earned North American Car of the Year accolades Sunday, the timing, for the auto maker, was perfect.

The significant endorsement came just hours before Toyota was to unveil its next vehicle to be powered by its Hybrid Synergy Drive system: the Highlander Hybrid.

The gas-electric-powered Highlander cross/utility vehicle, to bow in about a year, and the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid version of its RX 330 CUV, slated for a Tuesday unveiling, represent the Toyota’s third and fourth hybrid offerings and establish the auto maker as dominant in gas-electric hybrid technology.

And today’s award is important in establishing Toyota’s reputation in the field, says James E. Press, chief operating officer-Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

“From a longer-term perspective, it is a major step in establishing our hybrid system, Hybrid Synergy Drive, as a legitimate powertrain of the future,” Press tells Ward's. “What we’re doing is seeing the industry recognize that the automobile has to become part of the solution – not part of the pollution.”

Hybrid Synergy Drive technology can adapt to virtually any powertrain configuration, Press says. But it makes the most sense with trucks. “The larger vehicles, the SUVs, make the best sense because the gains of mileage and emissions in a small car aren’t as significant as when you take a very large car,” he says.

In the hybrid version of its popular Highlander CUV, the gains are impressive. The hybrid system when mated to the Highlander’s 3.3L V-6, will make 270 hp and achieve 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in under 8 seconds. Yet, it will allow for significantly better fuel economy than a compact sedan, which averages at 27.6 mph (44.4 km/h), Toyota says. Plus, it will be able to go 600 miles (966 km) on a single tank of gas.

Toyota says its SULEV (super ultra-low-emissions vehicle) rating means the vehicle can drive from California to Florida and produce fewer smog-forming emissions than a can of air freshener.

Toyota plans to license its Hybrid Synergy Drive technology in 2006, in the same way the company now is licensing its first-generation hybrid technology. This also contributes to Toyota’s hybrid advantage.

“When you’re inventing new technology, it’s a lot harder for others to follow you than when you’re just applying proven technology,” Press says. “We’re introducing our third vehicle in the U.S., when other’s haven’t introduced their first, except one competitor (Honda Motor Co. Ltd.).

“With all this experience we are getting (with the hybrid vehicles in operation) that we’re able to feed back into our product development system, I think it’s a lead that’s going to be very difficult for anyone to pass,” Press says.

Toyota’s hybrid technology not only has been lauded by critics, but by consumers. The auto maker has authorized an increase in Prius production dedicated to the U.S. market, from 36,000 units annually to 47,000. And officials indicate there is room to grow even more, based on demand.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com