Since it was launched in 1997 in Japan, and 2000 in the US, the Toyota Prius has only been sold as a single body style. From 1997 to 2003, it was a subcompact four-door sedan. Since then, it has been a midsize five-door hatchback, thoroughly redesigned for 2010.

Now, Toyota executives told its dealers, the company plans to use the Prius name on two or three hybrid models in the U.S. market. The meeting, held last week in Las Vegas, was open to all Toyota and Lexus dealers and attended by Akio Toyoda, the company's new CEO.

32 10 prius

32 10 prius

New cars, or new body styles?

Two possibilities exist. The company might apply the Prius model designation to U.S. versions of hybrids it sells in other markets. One possibility might be the Auris Hybrid compact hatchback to be built in the UK starting next year.

Alternatively, Toyota might choose to offer a wider variety of body styles--a sedan, perhaps? a station wagon?--on the existing Prius platform, with its sloping nose.

It doesn't mean, however, that the Prius name would be broken out as the company's fourth brand--joining the mothership Toyota, luxury brand Lexus, and quirky entry-level Scion--to cover all its hybrid products.

The Prius name is very well recognized, and the public has a strong image of the Prius, so any additional models would have to match that image. A 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid rebadged as a Prius, for example, would be the worst of both worlds.

So what's Hybrid Synergy Drive, anyway?

Hybrid Synergy Drive, the company's name for its hybrid technology, is far less well recognized. It's worth wondering whether Toyota has taken a leaf from the General Motors playbook. Earlier this year, GM renamed its E-Flex electric-drive system as Voltec, taking advantage of the wide recognition won by its upcoming 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car.

Frequent reports in the automotive press say that Jim Lentz, chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, has wanted "a family of Prius models" for years. This was the first time the concept had been publicly presented in front of Japanese executives, however.

[Automotive News (subscription required) via TheCarConnection]