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Toyota, maker of the best-known hybrid to date, announced today a new family of its Priuses, including a plug-in version slated for release in 2012.

Not unexpectedly, considering that a major industry auto show is happening this week in Detroit, Toyota took the announcement an extra step by using social media as part of its pitch. Executives answered questions about the new models of Priuses via a Twitter chat, and an announcement was also made available via livestream on the company’s website.

It’s not the first time Toyota and others have experimented with social media to build hype for new offerings. The carmaker chose to announce its release of six new hybrids by 2012 via a tweet last year. Nissan has set up a Twitter account for its all-electric Leaf, where it retweets opinions of new Leaf owners and test drivers. Last year, Ford launched an aggressive, nationwide social media campaign for its well-reviewed, high gas-mileage Fiesta that had industry watchers declaring it a “winner” in social media awareness, ranking it above its competitors.

Earlier this month, electric car company Tesla chose to announce via blog the completion of a working prototype of the company’s 2012 all-electric Model S sedan. The company released a trio of high-quality videos that showed a walk-through of the car’s engineering, rather than opting for a traditional press release. (A Vimeo is worth a thousand words, perhaps?)

But social media can also lead to hiccups. VentureBeat reported the news two days ahead of Tesla’s announcement because a company employee let the news slip via a comment he penned on a Model S story.

And electric cars appear to still be tough to produce and sell en masse, as the Prius Plug-In is slated for limited release, like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric. The Prius Plug-In will initially be offered in the 14 states where 60 percent of existing Priuses have been sold: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Virginia and New Hampshire. Toyota says the plug-in Prius will become available to the rest of the U.S. a year after initial rollout.

While social media is clearly an increasingly integral part of car marketing, it doesn’t change the fact that the Toyota Prius Plug-In will be up against more green car competition than it had when the original Prius launched 10 years ago. The company website states battery range will cover 13 miles of emissions-free driving, less than the 25 to 50 miles of battery-powered driving the partially electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt offers.

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