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Wednesday, September 24, 2008 - Page updated at 03:00 AM

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Toyota will again try compressed natural gas as fuel

Toyota is taking a fresh look at compressed natural gas as a power source for U.S. automobiles, and plans to unveil a Camry Hybrid concept car powered by the fuel at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

PORTLAND — Toyota is taking a fresh look at compressed natural gas as a power source for U.S. automobiles, and plans to unveil a Camry Hybrid concept car powered by the fuel at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

Toyota officials made the announcement Tuesday at a sustainability forum in Portland, where they said the abundance, pricing and clean-burning properties of natural gas could make it an attractive fuel in an era of tightening oil supplies and increased regulation of automotive emissions.

Irv Miller, a Toyota Motor Sales group vice president, said compressed natural gas could become a "prime energy source for the future."

Back in 1999, Toyota marketed a CNG-powered four-cylinder Camry as a fleet vehicle to some California customers. But the program — at a time of much lower oil prices — did not catch on and was discontinued later.

The United States now has about 1,000 CNG refueling stations, with about half of them open to the public, according to Toyota officials.

The new concept car will mix the Toyota's electric hybrid technology with the CNG technology, but no details of the range of the vehicle were released Tuesday.

In Portland, Toyota officials discussed other research efforts as well, including work to increase the efficiency of the electric-gasoline hybrids that propel the popular Prius and other models.

Toyota also is planning a limited rollout in 2009 of a plug-in Prius that would operate on a lithium ion battery rather than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the current Prius. The plug-in could operate for a limited distance solely on the battery, and then could be plugged in to an outlet to be recharged.

Toyota also is researching all-electric cars, and on Tuesday announced it would place four of these vehicles — a version of the RAV4 — in Portland. Those cars, with a range of about 80 miles between charges, are intended to help the city and Oregon develop an electric-charging infrastructure, and will be used by Portland State University to carry people from mass-transit terminals to downtown and suburban locations.

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