TOKYO – Japanese auto makers continued dominating the hybrid- and electric-vehicle markets in 2012, with sales growing to an estimated 1.6 million units, more than 85% of global demand.

Toyota and Honda were the industry leaders in hybrids while Nissan, despite failing to meet its sales targets for the Leaf EV, was still the hands-down winner in the all-electric segment.

Toyota sold a record 1.2 million units, almost all hybrids. The auto maker now has 22 HEVs in its lineup including seven Lexus models. The latest, the IS300h, was launched in mid-May.

By 2015, Toyota plans to introduce 17 new or revised-model hybrids. Of its current hybrid lineup, all but two (the Prius plug-in and 7-seat Prius v) use nickel-metal-hydride batteries supplied by Primearth EV Energy, a Toyota subsidiary.

The plug-in Prius, fitted with a 4.4-kWh lithium-ion battery, was the second best-selling plug-in hybrid in 2012, trailing only the Chevrolet Volt extended-range.

Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper reports Toyota will switch to Li-ion batteries for the next-generation Prius due in 2015.

Although Toyota has been cool toward EV technology, believing fuel-cell vehicles offer a better long-term solution to global warming, the auto maker nevertheless launched all-electric versions of the Scion iQ and RAV4 in 2012. Both are limited-production models and management has given no indication when it might mass-produce them.

Current plans call for selling 2,600 RAV4 EVs over a 3-year period. The cross/utility vehicle, on sale since September, is produced at Toyota Motor Mfg. Canada using key drivetrain components from Tesla including a 41.8-kWh battery pack.

In the case of the iQ, sales will be limited to fleet programs and restricted to 100 units globally, including 90 in the U.S.

Honda Readies Launch of First Full Hybrid

Honda confirms it will introduce a 2-motor Accord hybrid in early July. The auto maker’s first full hybrid initially will go on sale in Japan, then later in the year in the U.S. and Canada.

In addition to its two motors, the car will employ a 1.3-kWh Li-ion battery supplied by Blue Energy, Honda’s joint venture with GS Yuasa. The hybrid system goes by the name Intelligent-Multimode Drive or i-MMD.

The plug-in Accord went on sale in January in New York and California. It has a range of 13 miles (21 km) in EV mode while running off a 6.7-kWh Li-ion battery supplied by Blue Energy.

Honda has developed a 3-motor “sport” hybrid system for larger-sized vehicles that incorporates all-wheel-drive technology. In addition to its three motors, power comes from a 1.5L Atkinson-cycle engine and 1-kWh Li-ion battery.

A senior powertrain engineer says the dividing line between 1- and 2-motor systems in Honda’s lineup will be the Civic. Anything in a larger segment will employ two motors; anything below, one motor. He says no decision has been made about the next-generation Civic.

The auto maker began leasing Fit EVs in July, initially in the U.S. Current plans call for making 1,300 of the subcompacts available over a 3-year period, including only 200 within Japan.

Toshiba supplies the 20-kWh Li-ion battery for the Fit EV and the 0.9-kWh battery for Honda’s EV-Neo electric scooter. The auto maker has sold 270 EV-Neos since the model’s April 2011 launch, well short of its first-year target of 1,000 units.

Honda sold 231,000 hybrids, all single-motor types, in 2012. Eighty percent of sales were in the Japanese market.

The auto maker started production of Jazz (Fit) hybrids from complete-knocked-down kits in mid-2012 at Honda Automobile (Thailand) and late last year at Honda Malaysia. In January, it shifted Civic Hybrid output to Honda Mfg. Indiana, where it joined the Acura ILX Hybrid launched last year.

Both the Civic Hybrid and ILX, like the Accord hybrids, employ Blue Energy batteries. All other Honda hybrids use NiMH batteries.

Nissan Grows Hybrid Range as Leaf EV Sales Sputter

Nissan sold 62,465 EVs and hybrids in 2012, including 30,112 Serena mild hybrids and 26,978 Leaf EVs. The auto maker failed to meet its Leaf target by nearly half.

Management appears to be shifting focus slightly toward hybrids. In December, the auto maker disclosed it would introduce 15 Nissan- and Infiniti-brand hybrids by 2017. First up will be the new Pathfinder and Infiniti Q50 CUV hybrids due out this summer.

Two-thirds of Nissan and Infiniti hybrids will feature the auto maker’s new front-wheel-drive system that debuted on the Pathfinder at the New York auto show in April. Nissan announced earlier it would introduce a PHEV in fiscal 2015.

Most current Nissan hybrids are concentrated in the luxury segment and thus have limited volume potential. They include the Fuga and Infiniti Q70 hybrids (formerly the M series hybrid), the Cima and the new Q50 Hybrid. All four models feature rear-wheel drive.

The auto maker hopes to sell 40,000 Q50 hybrids annually.

The Pathfinder and other FWD hybrids will incorporate JATCO’s new hybrid continuously variable transmission developed for 2.0L-3.5L vehicles and incorporating one motor and two clutches.

Mitsubishi, the first auto maker to mass-produce an EV (the i-MiEV in 2009), was one of the big losers in 2012 as it fell more than 80% short of its sales goal.

The auto maker delivered only 9,124 EVs, well below its 50,000-unit target. Then, just as it began to shift its focus away from EVs to PHEVs with the January launch of the Outlander Plug-In Hybrid, Mitsubishi was hit in mid-March with a recall related to overheating problems with the SUV’s Li-ion battery pack.

The batteries involved in the recall of more than 3,800 vehicles were produced by Lithium Energy Japan, Mitsubishi’s JV with GS Yuasa. The auto maker’s other Li-ion battery supplier, Toshiba, was not involved.

Outlander PHEV production resumed in early May, several weeks after the supplier found the source of the problem, and Mitsubishi says it will not delay the CUV’s North American launch next January.

However, Mitsubishi has frozen its product plan until management gets a clearer picture of the EV market’s direction. The auto maker two years ago announced plans to launch a second PHEV in fiscal 2013, a third PHEV and fourth EV in fiscal 2014, and a fourth PHEV in fiscal 2015.

Mazda will introduce its first hybrid in early 2014. The car, initially to be sold only in Japan, will incorporate Toyota’s hybrid technology. No details about the model or planned sales volume have been disclosed.

The auto maker began leasing the first of 100 battery-powered Demio minicars in October, mainly to Hiroshima-area government and corporate customers. Retail sales are scheduled for 2018.

Fuji Heavy Industries, maker of Subaru vehicles, unveiled a prototype of its first hybrid car at the New York auto show in April. The model, the XV Crosstrek, launches later this year.

It incorporates a 2.0L, 4-cyl. flat engine, 10-kW (13.4-hp) motor, CVT and 13.5-kWh NiMH battery supplied by Panasonic. Like other Subaru cars, the XV Crosstrek employs the auto maker’s signature AWD technology. Expected fuel economy is 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km).

Suzuki is conducting fleet tests of a PHEV version of its 0.7L Swift minicar for the Japanese market.

Japanese Battery Makers Still Dominant

Japanese battery manufacturers had an even greater role in meeting global hybrid and EV demand than did the country’s auto makers in 2012, commanding more than 90% of the market.

Primearth EV Energy was the leading producer with an estimated two-thirds of market share. The Toyota subsidiary manufactured an estimated 1.2 million units last year resulting in ¥160 billion ($1.6 billion) in sales.

The supplier is projecting 2013 sales of 1.3 million units. But as Primearth almost exclusively supplies NiMH batteries, its share will decline as global auto makers switch to Li-ion technology.

Besides Toyota, which accounts for more than 95% of sales, Primearth supplies Hino, Toyota’s truck-making subsidiary, and Allison Transmission. In February, it ended its supply agreement with General Motors for the auto maker’s fullsize pickup and SUV lineup, including the Chevrolet Tahoe and Silverado and Cadillac Escalade.

Panasonic, Japan’s leading manufacturer of NiMH and Li-ion batteries for all applications, reorganized its automotive battery operations in April under the name Panasonic Automotive & Industrial.

The supplier, which acquired Sanyo and Sanyo’s battery operations in 2009, delivers Li-ion batteries to Honda, Ford, Toyota, Audi, Tesla and Mazda.

Panasonic’s main customer is Honda, to which it supplies all Honda hybrids except the Civic, Acura ILX and Accord PHEV. In 2012, it delivered nearly 221,000 batteries.

Its second-largest customer was Ford, which purchased an estimated 20,000 batteries for its Fusion, C-Max and Lincoln MKZ full hybrids and Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi PHEVs.    

The C-Max, C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi are new models, launched between September and February. The Fusion and MKZ hybrids are model changes; the first generation of each employed NiMH batteries from Sanyo.

Panasonic provides batteries to Toyota’s plug-in Prius and Prius v hybrids and Scion iQ EV; Mazda’s Demio and Tesla’s Model S EVs; and Audi’s Q5 Hybrid Quattro. It is scheduled to begin deliveries to Porsche for a PHEV version of the Panamera due out in 2014.

To Porsche and Volkswagen, it supplies the Cayenne S and Toureg hybrids, respectively. Panasonic batteries also are used in two diesel hybrids, Peugeot’s 3008 HYbrid 4 and Citroen’s DS5 Hybrid.

Panasonic makes NiMH batteries at its Sumoto plant, which can produce 3 million battery cells a month. Its main Li-ion battery plant, in Kasai, has monthly capacity of between 1.4 million and 1.5 million cells. Both facilities are operated by Sanyo, although organizationally they fall under Panasonic’s Automotive & Industrial Systems.

Hitachi Vehicle Energy plans a 75% increase in Li-ion battery capacity at its Hitachinaka plant to 600,000 cells a month in 2014. Current capacity is 340,000 cells.

Through a previous expansion in 2009, the supplier, a subsidiary of electronics giant Hitachi, shifted focus away from batteries for Isuzu hybrid trucks to mild-hybrid cars for GM cars, including the Buick LaCrosse and Regal, and Chevrolet Malibu Eco and Impala.

Hitachi’s 0.5-kWh batteries are used in GM’s “eAssist” system. The auto maker delivered 31,236 LaCrosse, Regal and Malibu Eco hybrids in its principal U.S. market in 2012. Impala sales launched in April. The company provided only 258 battery packs to Isuzu in 2012.

Without disclosing names, Hitachi says it will begin deliveries for a new hybrid car this autumn and a PHEVplug-in hybrid in late 2015.

Automotive Energy Supply, Nissan’s JV with NEC and NEC Tokin, opened its third plant in January. With factories now on line in Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., the supplier has capacity to produce Li-ion batteries for 330,000 EVs and hybrids.

Cumulative investment is estimated at $750 million.

In 2012, Automotive Energy delivered an estimated 32,500 battery packs to Nissan including both hybrids and EVs. Total sales, including batteries for alliance-partner Renault, were not disclosed.

The supplier scrapped plans to open a fourth plant in Aviero, Portugal, due to the economic downturn in Europe.

Blue Energy, Honda’s JV with GS Yuasa, opened a second line last autumn at its Osando plant in Fukuchiyama, raising capacity to 15 million cells. No investment amount was disclosed. The JV spent ¥25 billion ($247 million) to set up the first line at the facility that opened in December 2010. Capacity was 6 million cells.

Lithium Energy Japan, GS Yuasa’s JV with Mitsubishi, opened its fourth Li-ion battery plant last spring in Ritto, west of Kyoto, giving the supplier capacity to produce cells for 165,000 EV and PHEV battery packs.

Toshiba, which supplies 10-kWh batteries for short-range versions of the i-MiEV car and Minicab-MiEV electric van and truck, produced an estimated 4,000 battery packs in 2012 for

Honda’s Fit EV in addition to the Mitsubishi short-range EVs.

In July, Toshiba began delivering its SCiB lithium-titanate-oxide battery to Suzuki for the microhybrid system in the auto maker’s Wagon R and Wagon R Stingray models. The system, called Ene-Charge, powers the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning functions.

Toshiba, a leading Japanese electronics maker, opened a ¥25 billion ($247 million) SCiB battery line in February 2011 at its Kashiwazaki plant in Niigata prefecture. The plant is operating at about 50% of capacity, with production for the auto industry estimated at about 80%.