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Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. says battery production for the Prius plug-in hybrid electric vehicle commenced in November at its Panasonic Electric Vehicle Energy joint venture in Japan.

The JV will produce 500 lithium-ion batteries for the model, which made its North American debut today at the 2009 Los Angeles auto show.

The next task is to assess how well those batteries perform in the Prius PHEVs, 350 of which are going into government and business fleets beginning this month in Japan and Europe. Some 150 will be put into fleets in the U.S. early next year.

“This first-generation lithium battery has undergone more than three years of coordinated field testing in Japan, North America and Europe in a wide variety of climatic environments and driving conditions,” Toyota says in a statement.

It says the battery was deemed “both reliable and durable” after it was field-tested in 150 “conventional hybrids,” mostly in Toyota’s Prius hatchback. The testing put “well over” 1 million miles (1.6 million km) combined on the Li-ion batteries.

But the plan to put the Prius PHEV into test fleets, which will result in a “more severe charge-depleting mode,” will give engineers a better idea of the battery’s real-world performance.

In a statement, Toyota indicates the car’s EV-only range on a full charge is 13 miles (21 km) vs. the previously stated 12 miles (19 km).

In EV mode, the Prius PHEV is “capable of achieving” highway speeds up to 60 mph (97 km/h).

All fleet Prius plug-ins will have a data-retrieval device that will relay vehicle information directly to Toyota.

This includes how often people are charging the car and at what time of day, each Prius PHEV’s combined fuel economy and trip duration, as well as whether batteries are being fully charged or just topped off.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com