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Toyota Prius Alpha finally goes on sale in Japan. Or does it? *UPDATED*

If the Toyota Prius Alpha sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s because back in November 2010 it was predicted in a number of reports as the model name given to the new “squareback” larger Toyota Prius variant. Frankly, this author questioned the name, given its potential for confusion with Alfa Romeo. And, indeed, that line of thinking appeared to be vindicated as the Prius v for North America and Prius+ for Europe names were unveiled. Alas, in a classic example of the old “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” cliché, Toyota has just revealed that the Prius Alpha name will indeed be used, albeit only in Japan, as of now. Still unconfirmed is which denominator (v, + or a, as the Alpha is actually badged in Japan) will be used in Asian markets outside Japan and in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand).

On March 4 we first reported on the Japanese Domestic Market’s version of the larger Prius, including the revelation that they would offer both variants (a 5-passenger model with a nickel-metal hydride battery hybrid system and a 7-passenger model with a lithium-ion battery hybrid system), as well as some pricing information and a predicted on-sale date of late April 2011 (with April 24 given as the date by some accounts) in Japan. Then, exactly a week later, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck, and, on March 23, Toyota officially announced the postponement of the larger Prius’ launch. Although at the time we called it the first new model launch delay as a result of the Japanese earthquakes, it was actualy the second, after the Honda Fit Shuttle that was originally scheduled to roll out on March 18.

Given how the restart of Toyota production in Japan has been a gradual process, the thought of adding a new model to the mix was far from many minds, yet today, a Toyota Global News release appeared, announcing the launch in Japan of Prius Alpha and revealing a cadre of new information, such as pricing for all 7 JDM variants, the selection of 8 exterior colors including new Clear Stream Metallic and a monthly sales target for Japan of 3000 units. The Toyota Japan consumer website also got into the act with a dedicated Prius Alpha page with multiple links.

Notably missing from the first Toyota Global news release, though, is indisputable confirmation of an on-sale date for Japan. (Although it does mention a Prius v launch planned for North America this summer and a Prius + launch planned for Europe in mid-2012, hewing to the originally-planned schedule). Further muddying the issue is an enigmatic follow-up Toyota Global News release forecasting an unavoidable delay in delivery of the Prius α, newly launched in Japan, due to the ongoing effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake on production, followed by apologies and a figurative Japanese deep bow.

Adding to the confusion, a Reuters story gushingly reported that “Toyota…said it had received 25,000 orders for the Prius Alpha…in Japan before sales start on Friday (13 May)…That is equivalent to more than eight times its monthly sales target of 3000 units”, followed by a vague “Toyota said customers will have to wait longer than usual for delivery due to the ongoing disruption to production” notation.

Leave it to Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars to truly live up to his site’s name and bring us the full scoop from the Prius Alpha press preview in Japan. Here are the most pertinent passages from his report:

The (Prius Alpha) will be available in a distant future, in April 2012. No typo. 11 months from now. Next year.

When asked today when the car will be delivered, Chief Engineer Hiroshi Kayukawa said: “Well, we are trying to get our production up and into order, and having received so many orders in advance, we want to do this as quickly as possible, and it looks like it’s going to be April 2012.”

Instead of a tsunami, a ripple ran through the audience…“You said April twothousandtwelve?” asked an incredulous reporter. “Is that related to the earthquake crisis kind of thing? Is that the problem?” Under fire, the Chief Engineer says: “Well, ok, now, originally we were planning to launch this in late April. The launch event has been set back a couple of weeks. So in that sense, there is a direct relationship to the natural disaster. However, in terms of actual production, we have all the parts lined up, we are ready to make it.” More flabbergastedness.

Here is what we could unearth at the sidelines of the first launch event of a car that will become available a little less than a year later: The Prius Alpha will be made at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota city on line 1. On the same line, the Prius and other sedans are being made. There is such a backlog of orders for the Prius and other cars that the fabulous new guy Prius Alpha will have to take a number and wait for its turn.

Thus, don’t expect that earlier on-sale prediction for Prius v to be an ironclad guarantee set in stone unless Toyota plans to figuratively elbow aside its Japanese clientele in favor of us North Americans. For what it’s worth, Kayukawa-san revealed an initial target of 2000 monthly Prius v sales in the United States and 2000 monthly Prius+ sales in Europe. And here’s hoping that a Japanese Prius Alpha launch on Friday the 13th doesn’t turn out to be some sort of prescient omen…

UPDATE: An Associated Press report by Yuri Kageyama implies that limited supplies of the lithium-ion batteries for 7-passenger Prius Alphas are the main cause for the year-long delay predicted for some customer deliveries. The article also cites Toyota executive Satoru Mouri in clarifying that the 3000-per-month forecast for Japan is based on 1000 units of the 7-passenger version and 2000 of the 5-seaters per month. Also, the 25,000 advance orders in Japan break down as 18,000 for the 5-passenger model with nickel-metal hydride batteries, and 7,000 for the 7-passenger model with lithium-ion batteries.

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