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Detroit auto show: Toyota unveils its 2013 Prius C

After a particularly bad year, the Japanese auto giant emerges in Detroit with a cut-rate hybrid – but will anybody buy it?

Toyota, the biggest player in hybrid-electric cars, has launched a cut price Prius as the Japanese firm fights back following one of the worst years in its history.

Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota USA, unveiled the Prius C at the second day of the North American International Automobile Show (NAIAS) at Detroit’s Cobo Center. For a second year in a row the car show has been dominated by hybrid and electric car launches, although sales have so far been disappointing.

The new Prius C will have a starting price in the US of ,000 and features a 1.5-litre gas engine as well as a 144-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, and will achieve 53 miles per gallon, “the highest city fuel efficiency of any car in America without a plug,” said Lentz.

Toyota also unveiled a concept plug-in hybrid sedan, the NS4, that may go on sale in 2015.

Last year Toyota lost its poll position as the world’s biggest car seller as production suffered from the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Prius sales peaked in the US in 2007 at 181,221 and were only at 136,463 last year, despite a 10% rebound in the industry overall.

Lentz said the new Prius would help drive sales higher this year and predicted that deliveries of the Prius in the US would exceed 220,000 in 2012.

“Ten years ago there were two gas-electric hybrids on display here at Cobo. Two. Today, look around you, in nearly every display in every corner of this, the world’s premiere auto show, Hybrid technology in its many-and-varied forms has arrived,” said Lentz.

“Our industry has not just embraced hybrids, hybrids have energized our industry, offering it a clear road to the future. Perhaps the clearest point of all is that conventional hybrids are the foundation and the necessary first step in advancing unconventional technologies with mainstream buyers,” he said.

As if to underscore his point, Ford, GM, Chevrolet and Nissan, among others, all unveiled new hybrids in Detroit this week. Volkswagen, which beat Toyota in global sales last year, premiered an electric Beetle, the E-Bugster, at NAIAS on Monday. The sporty concept car will do 60mph in 10.9 seconds and have a range of “at least” 110 miles, if it ever gets built.

But so far sales of hybrids and electric cars have been disappointing. Speaking at the auto show Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche, who also launched hybrid vehicles, said: “We were always realistic about the speed of change. It will be a long transition to zero emissions. On the other hand if you don’t start with high volume production, you won’t be in the game. It’s a dilemma.”

Auto sales bounced back more than 10% in the US last year but sales of “alternative power source light vehicles” rose just 2.3%, according to the analysts WardsAuto. GM’s hybrid Chevrolet Volt was NAIAS’s car of the year in 2011 but ended the year more than 2,000 cars short of its 10,000 sales target. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds