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2012 Toyota Hybrid Preview by Carey Russ +VIDEO

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2012 Toyota Hybrids (clockwise from top left: Camry, Highlander, Prius, Prius Plug-in)


• SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyers Guide

{WOW, there's about 45-minutes of video attached to this story}

Toyota has made quite an investment in hybrid technology, and the best way to recover that investment is by selling product. And one of the best ways to sell the most product is by offering customers the most choice.

You can't say that Toyota isn't giving hybrid buyers choices. A decade ago, there was only the first-generation Prius. It quickly became the hybrid icon. A second generation debuted for 2004, followed, somewhat surprisingly, by a hybrid model of the Highlander crossover for 2006. 2007 saw the hybrid version of the ever-popular Camry midsize sedan. By that time, hybrid technology was well-proven, and no longer only the province of technophile early-adopters. Hybrids were mainstream.

Toyota's hybrid development since then has been more geared toward refinement than expansion, with the third-generation Prius in 2010 building on the strengths of its predecessors. Development continues -- as does expansion.

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2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The Highlander lineup, including the Hybrid, got a major overhaul for 2011. And with the recent release of the newest generation of Camry comes the newest Camry Hybrid. Both, although with significant changes, are evolutionary developments of existing products.

The situation is different in Prius-land. Toyota's signature hybrid is about to go from one model to a complete lineup.

The familiar Prius sedan, now called the Liftback, gets freshened exterior styling outside, detail changes inside, and a new trim level ("grade" in Toyota's terminology") arrangement. The larger Prius v (for "versatility") will soon arrive, for the first step in Prius expansion.

After that comes the official Prius PHV (Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle). The regular Prius's nickel-metal hydride battery was designed to be recharged by driving, using the traction motor as a generator, not by being plugged into the power grid. There have been aftermarket plug-in conversions for several years, but those as unofficial and impact the car's luggage space. Using data and experience collected in a recently-completed test program using modified 2010 Priuses (Prii?), Toyota has one of its own, to be offered for sale in the more hybrid-intensive parts of the country (read: Pacific Coast and Northeast) first, and to the rest of the country in a year or so. There are significant differences between the PHV prototype I drove several months ago and the production version, all in favor of the production version.

Further down the line is the Prius c, a smaller car than the Liftback.

Toyota recently held a press function to highlight its newest hybrids, and I attended. After a short briefing, primarily on the official Prius PHV and the changes to the Liftback, there were opportunities to drive each car on a short test route. Impressions follow.

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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Prius PHV: Welcome the new premium model in the Prius lineup -- more quickly if you are one of the 42,000 people who expressed interest by pre-registration and if you live in one of the 14 launch states, primarily on the West Coast and Northeast. Otherwise and elsewhere, you'll have to wait a year or so.

What and why: A plug-in hybrid is exactly what it sounds like - a battery-internal combustion hybrid with a battery pack that can be recharged by plugging directly in to an external power source as well as by use of the traction motor as a generator. Why? So that it can operate in fully-electric mode for a longer distance. With the state of battery technology today, a fully-electric vehicle has a range that may be too limited for most people's driving needs, and any public recharging infrastructure is minimal at best or more likely (in most places) nonexistent. A regular hybrid solves that problem, but is not designed for more than momentary electric-only operation. And the metal-hydride batteries in most hybrids aren't meant for direct plug-in recharging.

A plug-in hybrid uses a battery that can be recharged from the power grid in addition to or to replace its regular motive-power battery. In current practice that means a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack. Development test Prius plug-ins had a small Li-ion battery plus the regular Ni-MH traction battery, so less luggage space and no room for a spare tire. The production version will have a larger Li-ion battery that can be recharged by both plugging in and driving, and no Ni-MH battery. The prototypes could run up to 11 miles in EV mode; production versions are good for 15 miles at up to 62 mph (100 kph), after which they will revert to regular hybrid operation. No worries about running out of battery power, but do watch the gas gauge!

The best feature is that timing of EV mode is up to the driver. The prototypes operated electrically from the time the (auxiliary) Li-ion battery was charged to when it discharged. Now, if you have a highway commute first thing, and city traffic later, where EV mode makes more sense, you can wait until you're in city traffic before going electric. The Li-ion battery can only be fully-charged by plugging in; on-board generation works up to a partial charge only. The standard 120V charging cable is lighter and more flexible than that of the prototypes, and the charging port has been repositioned to be closer to the battery to save weight.

How it works: as an EV for about 15 miles of city street driving with some freeway, with good acceleration on an uphill onramp. With the same 134 net system horsepower as the regular Liftback, performance is similar. The fuel tank is slightly smaller, made up for by EV mode.

You want it if: you're a techie early-adopter and EV enthusiast.

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2012 Toyota Prius Hybrid

Prius Liftback: The standard by which all other hybrids are judged gets incremental improvements for 2012. Freshened front and rear styling, new color choices and revisions to trim levels are standard mid-product cycle changes in the industry. Infotainment standards and choices reflect the changing nature of the consumer electronics industry, with more connectivity with the optional Entune™ system and the JBLŽ GreenEdge™ reduced-power consumption, lightweight audio system. Other than that, it works just like it always has, and no complaints there.

You want it if: you're looking for a space- and fuel-efficient sedan that requires no compromises for its efficiency.

Watch the Toyota Prius Hybrid on-road promo video

Prius v: I drove and reviewed the v earlier in the year, so I concentrated on the other models this time around. Think of the v as Matrix to Liftback's Corolla - it's a bit bigger outside, even more so inside. With the same powertrain and a couple hundred pounds more weight from that size, performance and economy suffer slightly (Physics 101) but are still good.

You want it if: you want a bigger Prius.

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2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Camry Hybrid: I saw the webcast of the 2012 Camry press intro, and I've seen photos. In both cases I didn't think the car looked very different from the previous generation. In the flesh, it's a different story -- it looks much better. On the road, it's even better. All powertrains have been upgraded, as the four-cylinder and V6 engines get more power and improved efficiency, with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The Hybrid gets, according to Toyota, a 30-percent improvement in fuel economy thanks to a new 2.5-liter gasoline engine, better aerodynamics, and lighter weight. A new EV Drive mode allows electric-only operation for up to 1.6 miles at speeds under 25 mph. Although it's almost the same size outside than the outgoing version, the new Camry is a bit larger inside. The unibody structure has been revised for greater strength with less weight, and the suspension redesigned and retuned for more responsive handling.

Watch the complete Camry Hybrid walkaround

A short drive showed that it's not a sports sedan, but even the Hybrid is much-improved in the chassis department, with better response to driver inputs and no loss of comfort. And an even quieter interior.

You want it if: you want a hybrid but prefer more performance than a Prius and don't mind a tradeoff on fuel economy.

Watch the Toyota Camry Hybrid on-road promo video

Highlander Hybrid: Toyota's take on the midsize crossover got bigger last year, with all models now featuring three rows of seating. The Hybrid model, offered in base and luxury Limited grades, has an unusual part-time single-range four-wheel drive system that pairs the Hybrid Synergy drive's 3.5-liter V6 and traction motor for the front wheels with a separate traction motor for the rear wheels. It's a civilization-oriented crossover, not an off-road SUV (traction motors and deep water or mud are not happy companions) but boasts a useful 3500-lb. towing ability and estimated 28 mpg fuel consumption with seating for seven people.

Its hybrid nature is, for the most part, transparent. EV mode allows electric-only operation for short distances at low speeds. Other than that, it's a roomy large-midsize crossover that gets exceptional fuel economy for its size, with no compromise on power or towing ability.

You want it if: you want or need a crossover that has space and towing ability and good fuel economy for the genre.

Watch the Toyota Highlander Hybrid on-road promo video

Most of Toyota's hybrids should be getting into my local press fleet in coming months, so more detailed examinations are coming.

• SEE ALSO: Perfect New Car Match