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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The controversy surrounding safety issues at Toyota Motor Corp has not changed the way it is market testing the new plug-in version of its Prius Hybrid, the director of Toyota Canada said on Thursday.
Toyota unveiled its plans on Thursday to test the vehicle in four Canadian provinces over the next year, hoping to find out, in part, how consumers will use the rechargeable electric-gas cars in cold weather.
"No (change). Not at all. Prius is a tried and true technological safety leader in the industry," Larry Hutchinson told reporters at the Globe environmental conference in Vancouver, where the pilot testing plan was announced.
"The pilot is not a technical pilot. The pilot is more for us about understanding the consumer, and how and who (the car) would be best suited for," Hutchinson said.
The world's largest automaker is fighting to maintain consumer support in the face of safety concerns that led it to recall some 8.5 million vehicles.
The company said in February it would recall nearly 500,000 new Prius and Lexus brand hybrid cars globally for braking problems, but Hutchinson said that was not to address a safety issue.
Toyota has built 600 plug-in Prius vehicles for pilot tests around the world. Most will go to Europe, United States and Japan. It hopes to have the car available to consumers in two to three years.
The plug-in Prius vehicles are designed to travel more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and reach speeds of up to 100 km per-hour (62 mph) using just their lithium-ion batteries, according to the company.
Automakers have seen plug-in hybrids as a product for consumers who worry that battery-powered cars are not suitable for long-distance driving.
"I think the consumer for this is a mainstream consumer. We see this as a mainstream car," Hutchinson said
Toyota will be working with several utilities, universities and municipalities on the tests in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba.
Among the groups participating is the city of Vancouver, which last year became the first North American city to require all new apartment buildings have facilities in their parking garages to recharge electric vehicles.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Frank McGurty