By The Car Family
It started fairly innocuously with Toyota’s introduction of the Prius in 2000. It was ugly, underpowered and cramped, but the technology and fuel mileage were stunning for the price. The word was that Toyota was losing money on each sale, and still many took one look and walked away from the nearly $20,000 pricing. After all gas was $1.40. The Prius was ignored by the major publications because it was slow, fairly plain looking and, let’s face it, Toyota wasn’t backing it with much advertising. Since we test vehicles from a family viewpoint we immediately made it our car of the year and sent Toyota our award, the only automobile journalists that did so.
Unsure of the potential of the Prius, Toyota only ordered 1,000 units per month for the first two years, and this gave wings to the company’s planners. So in 2004 they introduced the much sleeker second generation Prius. This model was again a sales success and today the Prius is the number one seller in the number one market in the United States: California. As Sam Butto of Toyota pointed out, “I think the name Prius was, and is, perfect for the vehicle as Prius in Latin means to go forward, suggesting it is a predecessor of cars to come.”
Prius becomes a Household Name
Today, nearly 15 years later, the term Prius and the idea of the Prius have enveloped the nation. Jokes such as the movement of the space shuttle Discovery through the streets of Los Angeles at Prius speeds are understood, something that was unheard of before Toyota took the bold leap to bring mass produced family hybrids to the world.
Ferdinand Porsche, yes that Porsche, developed the first gasoline-electric hybrid in the early 1900s, and diesel electric hybrid locomotives have been around for generations. But it took Toyota to take the risk of bringing to market a vehicle that by all standards was a money loser, and no one outside of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace were worried too much about the environment at the time.
Perhaps an even greater hurdle was the demise of General Motors’ all electric EV-1. It had a short driving range and a shorter lifespan. The Car Family thought the EV-1 was a stellar idea with regenerative braking, a quiet ride, and about 70 miles of power if you weren’t using the fast lane. The problem for the Prius was that people assumed future vehicles that used battery power were all plug-ins with a short range because of the EV-1 legacy. This range worry was carried over to the Prius by the uninformed and thus Toyota’s product languished for a while. Honda sold a few of its sleek Insights, a two-seater hybrid, but despite their excellent fuel economy, the lack of storage and comfort rendered it ineffective in cultivating consumer interest.
In 2000, Toyota only sold around 6,000 Prius sedans, but the word was getting out that the Prius was a money saver and kind to the environment. Slowly sales increased driven largely by word-of-mouth and gas prices increasing to over $3.50. The result was sales of over 100,000. Today, Toyota is selling that many in six months, and the demand is staggering even with steady price increases. You can still buy a standard liftback Prius for just over $22,000, but many buyers are moving upscale to the solar-paneled roof 5 model and even to the fully loaded Advanced Plug-In that list for around $40,000. The hot-selling base Plug-In with the optional white paint, is the most coveted of all, bringing premium pricing and why not with real world gas mileage figures easily topping 65 mpg?
Other Manufacturers Motivated to Join
What is even more dramatic is that this Priusization of the nation has yielded to the public a choice of over 60 hybrid vehicles, and they include everything from a Porsche SUV to a Honda sports coupe. Toyota is upping the ante with the possibility of making all of their vehicles available with a hybrid option. This is not only driven by consumer demand, but by pending corporate fuel economy standards that will force automobile companies to have cars averaging over 50 mpg in the near future. That reality is augmented by the fact the steady surge in demand has carved out a lucrative consumer niche for hybrids that can’t be ignored. That belief is cemented by the fact that over five million hybrids have been sold around the world with Toyota earning profits on four million of those. And Americans buy the most.
The Prius has also established itself as a vehicle to be owned by environmental leaders, and this clout puts pressure on other manufacturers to keep pace. It also helped prompt the government to give federal tax breaks. Progressive states also adopted this policy and even offer owners the privilege of driving in the high occupancy lanes.
The Priusization has brought energy patriotism into vogue by reducing the United State’s dependence on imported oil. In 2012, 12,778,885 vehicles were sold and the average fuel economy was around 23 mpg. If even about 25 percent of these were a Prius, the total gas burned would be reduced by over 40 percent. Of course, that is unrealistic, but it does show the potential that Priusization offers. And, just as importantly, it puts pressure on other manufacturers to compete by producing more efficient engines. Indeed, almost very hybrid now offered uses some of the basic ideas that Toyota helped bring to the public.
Finally, the Prius has become a cult favorite for both movie stars and those who want to fly their We Care colors. And today that cult is expanding as more families are tempted to test drive these sedans and find there is plenty of room, good performance–thanks to the Power button, and the ability to take 450 mile journeys without refueling. It is when they refuel that the real magic occurs because the Prius only uses about nine gallons of gas to travel 450 or more miles. This creates expectations for other manufacturers to meet. In 2010 there was only one non-diesel, non-hybrid car that could get over 40 mpg on the highway. Today there are seven non-hybrids, 21 hybrids, and three plug-in cars that better that mark, and there is little doubt that the Prius pushed these manufacturers into spending the funds to meet the competition and even tickled the German companies to expand their diesel powered line-ups.
The Real Meaning of Prius
The world Prius has also entered the media with terms such as Prius Progressives, and Prius Politics gaining immediate understanding. As well, the idea of the Prius as an environmental statement has now been somewhat overwhelmed by its practicality and utility appeal. Driving a Prius is no longer just seen as being caring, but pragmatic as well. Cities, such as Rancho Cucamonga are placing electric plug-in outlets at parks, and businesses are buying Prius in fleet quantities. The reason is simple, the government is allowing 55.5 cents per mile for business miles driven. When you consider that the Prius can cost well under ten cents a mile and has very high resale you have an exceptional, and legal, tax benefit. And if you own a plug-in and use your business to charge the batteries, the energy used is a business expense. Makes one wonder how long it will take before the government makes a Prius regulation for tax allowances.
In America only a few words have gone from proper noun to noun or genericized trademarks: Crescent wrench, Kleenex, Xerox, Q-tip, Coke, and Jello to name a few. In the automobile world this list includes brands such as Cadillac for quality, Rolls Royce for wealth, Jeep for off-roadability, and Edsel for poor value. Joining this list now is Prius, the only vehicle in the modern era that has not only created an image, but a car whose name has joined popular lexicon for frugality, environmental concern, and yes, even slow moving.
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