The Prius Effect

| 11/12/2009 3:17:14 PM

The experts at the Toyota Motor Co. were persistently wrong about the Prius. They seriously underestimated how popular it would be.

When it appeared in Japan in 1997, the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car was not immediately recognized as a serious automotive challenge to the omnipresence of the internal-combustion engine.

Prius 1999The car was introduced to Japanese drivers in 1997. About 18,000 sold that year. On Earth Day, 2000, Toyota announced that the car was on its way to the United States, and the first American drivers stepped into their new hybrid cars in August.

Throughout the next five years, the only way to get hold of a Prius in the United States was by preordering one from the manufacturer. The waiting time for a new Prius was often more than six months. Its popularity was not based on economic necessity. When the new car first launched in the United States, gas was cheap. At that time, regular gasoline was selling for about $1.30 a gallon and inefficient SUVs were in their heyday. Toyota would debut a website via which car buyers could make a “pioneer purchase” of the Prius. About 6,000 American consumers signed up and got their hands on a Prius that first year, and about 20,000 sold worldwide, most of them in Japan. In 2001, 29,000 Priuses sold worldwide. By 2007, Toyota was selling 10 times that — 181,000 cars in the United States alone. And people kept putting their names on the waiting lists. Those sales numbers would have been much higher if production had kept pace with demand.

No other hybrid or fuel efficient car has been nearly as successful. The Toyota Yaris, which gets 80 percent of the Prius gas mileage and costs about half as much as a Prius, sold about half as many units in 2008. At 2008 fuel prices, you would have to drive your Prius at least 50,000 miles before the price difference was paid off in fuel savings.

The Honda Civic Hybrid was a dud in comparison to the Prius. Although its price and fuel efficiency were comparable, the car sold about 20 percent as many units in 2007. Compared with the 159,000 Priuses sold in the United States during 2008, Honda sold about 31,000 Civic Hybrids.

12/8/2009 9:40:59 PM

I could care less about the so-called "environmental impact" of manufacturing a new car. I just want a car I can drive that will allow me to send less of my energy dollars overseas to people who hate us. I bought a new Yaris, but am now considering a Prius (though the Yaris has been great).

R S_5
12/7/2009 12:32:15 PM

The environmental impact of manufacturing a modern car is huge. As one of the other comments points out, it's better to continue ot operate a well maintained existing vehicle. Please note further that the environmental impact of manufacturing a Prius, and similar hybrids, far exceeds the environmental impact of traditional vehicles. By some estimates, you can produce 2-3 traditional vehicles for the same environmental impact as 1 Prius. The differences in economy and environmental costs of operation hardly offset the differences in manufacturing impact.

12/7/2009 8:36:04 AM

I bought my Prius in 2006 and timed it perfectly to max out the tax rebate ($3150!!). I'm not that big of a tree-hugger, but wanted a Prius because: 1) I'm cheap and wanted to save on buying gas, but still wanted a nice car. 2) I think it's patriotic to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

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