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Toyota-owned Daihatsu, a gas engine stalwart, tries again in hybrid cars

One of Japan's biggest minicar makers joins electrification race

Daihatsu Motor intends to release a hybrid version of its Rocky SUV, with plans to make a similar switch for its minicars. (Photo by Ryutaro Yokoyama)

OSAKA -- Japan's Daihatsu Motor -- the country's only major automaker to develop all gasoline-powered cars -- plans to roll out a hybrid compact SUV this year in a second attempt at electrified vehicles, Nikkei has learned.

The hybrid version of the Rocky sport utility vehicle will feature technology co-developed by Daihatsu's parent, Toyota Motor. Hybrid minicars are to follow.

The move signals that the country's minicar makers have begun playing catch-up in electrification with peers that build bigger vehicles as Japan aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Daihatsu's hybrid Rocky SUV is expected to cost several thousand dollars more than the fully gas-powered model. Daihatsu aims for 20% to 30% better fuel economy with the hybrid.

Daihatsu had sold a hybrid version of its Hijet commercial van until around 2010 on a limited scale. 

When developing a hybrid minicar or subcompact, automakers usually employ a simplified drive system that uses electric motors to supplement the engine as a way to keep prices down.

Drawing on Toyota's system, Daihatsu has developed a full-fledged hybrid in which motors alone can turn the wheels when the engine is shut off.

The Osaka-based company curbed costs by improving the engine, the lithium-ion battery and other parts. It may spend additional tens of millions of dollars on metalworking and engine production facilities.

The days of conventional cars are numbered in Japan. The government aims for all new autos to be electrified by 2035.

Daihatsu's low-cost cars and trucks are popular in rural communities that lack the extensive public transportation networks of urban areas. The automaker has been wary of offering higher-priced hybrids to its main customer base. It has instead focused on reducing the weight of its vehicles to improve fuel economy.

Minicars and minitrucks account for roughly 30% of new vehicle sales in Japan, making them key to efforts to cut auto emissions through electrification. Suzuki Motor, Daihatsu's close rival in minicar market share, offers hybrid vehicles, but only of the simplified kind, which do little to improve fuel efficiency.

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