Ford Motor Co. will sell a hybrid-only minivan in the U.S. next year in a bid to challenge Toyota's hybrid dominance.
The five-passenger van will come in two versions: A gas-electric hybrid, like Toyota's Prius, that gets more than 41 miles per gallon, and a plug-in hybrid, like the Chevrolet Volt, which will run on electric power but have a backup gas engine that kicks in when the power runs low.
Gas and diesel versions of the minivan, called the C-Max, went on sale late last year in Europe, where they have been a hit for Ford. But the company decided to make the C-Max a hybrid-only vehicle in the U.S. after seeing buyer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles spike in the last few months. Gas prices are up 20 percent since February, although they've come down in recent weeks.
Ford is eager to have a hybrid-only vehicle. The company has sold more than 140,000 hybrid versions of some of its vehicles, like the Fusion sedan and Escape SUV, over the last six years. But that falls far short of Toyota Motor Corp., which recently sold its 1 millionth Prius in the U.S. Customers seem to prefer hybrid-only cars like the Prius, which has a unique look that can't be confused with a gas-powered car.
Ford wants to jump in before Toyota gets too far in its planned expansion of the Prius family. Toyota has a five-passenger Prius wagon, the Prius V, going on sale in the U.S. later this year. Toyota also is planning to sell a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius next year.
Ford originally planned to sell a seven-passenger gas version of the C-Max in the U.S. in 2012. But it's scrapping that vehicle for now because customers have expressed far more interest in a five-passenger hybrid.
"Customers have really changed in the last 120 days," Ford marketing chief Jim Farley said during an event at the Sterling Heights, Mich., plant that will make parts for the C-Max. Ford will build the vans at its Michigan Assembly Plant outside Detroit and export some to Europe.
Hybrids use a combination of an internal combustion engine and a battery pack to power a car or truck.
Ford did not give out many details about the C-Max Thursday. It didn't give the exact date it will go on sale, how far it will go in all-electric mode or how much it will cost.
But Farley said Ford can bring down the cost considerably because the hybrid and the plug-in hybrid share many parts. The Volt, for example, starts at $40,280, but it doesn't share its hybrid system with any other General Motors Co. vehicle.
Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive, thinks Ford could sell the C-Max hybrid for as low as $25,000 and the plug-in hybrid for a few thousand dollars more, making the cost more comparable to the Nissan Leaf electric car, which starts at $32,780. Both the Leaf and the Volt are now eligible for a $7,500 tax credit.
Still, Bragman said Ford will have a hard time taking the hybrid mantle away from Toyota, since the Japanese company has such a head start in buyers' minds.
"The Prius is synonymous with `hybrid,'" he said.