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Plug-in hybrids quickly becoming Japan's favorite way to drive green

Mitsubishi Motors' Outlander PHEV can be charged from a household outlet.

TOKYO -- The plug-in hybrid vehicle is coming into its own in the Japanese market as carmakers from Japan and Germany aim to make these vehicles their mainstay eco-friendly offerings.

     Plug-in hybrids use an electric motor when at low speeds and gasoline engines when traveling at higher speeds, such as on expressways. Conventional electric vehicles, which have suffered in sales due to low mileage potentials and other performance issues, use quick chargers located at designated stations. Plug-in hybrids can be charged through home outlets. Some models are already available that can travel more than 800km on a single charge.  

     The rise in popularity of plug-in hybrids will also likely boost the charging infrastructure network for electric vehicles. Toyota Motor, Nissan Motor, Honda Motor and Mitsubishi Motors are planning to develop jointly a charging network with support from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The effort is expected to double the country's current number of charging stations to 4,000.

     Toyota has on its own started demonstration tests for a contactless charging system.

Powerful incentives

According to market research company Fuji Keizai, the Japanese plug-in hybrid vehicle market is expected to swell to 1.94 million units in 2030, and the eco-car market, including hybrids and electric vehicles, to 13.64 million units.

     A sales clerk at a Mitsubishi Motors dealership says that more than half of the customers who buy the Outlander, the company's flagship SUV, choose the plug-in hybrid model. Mitsubishi has focused on developing electric vehicles, positioning them as the future of eco-friendly cars.

     "Electric vehicles have not achieved results we expected," Mitsubishi Motors President Osamu Masuko said. "Instead, plug-in hybrids will be the core (eco-car) in the future."

     Mitsubishi uses the term PHEV, for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, as a way to make it clear that their plug-in hybrids compensate for the weaker performances of its electric vehicles. Mitsubishi has plans to introduce plug-in hybrid versions of its SUVs -- the Pajero and the RVR.

     The Japanese market is led by the Outlander PHEV and Toyota's Prius PHV. Honda's Accord plug-in hybrid is third.   

     Germany's biggest carmakers are also aiming at the Japanese market. BMW plans to release the i8, a plug-in hybrid coupe. Volkswagen is to launch a plug-in hybrid version of its Golf compact. Audi plans to introduce a plug-in hybrid of its A3 family car. And Daimler will release a plug-in hybrid version of its high-end Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

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