By on February 15, 2013

Oddly enough, the presence of the roomy Prius V and less costly Prius C have done little to harm the popularity of Toyota’s primary hybrid, the Prius. More accurately, since Toyota introduced the V, C, and Plug-In versions, sales of the core model have done nothing but rise.

Two questions arise. First, to what extent have sales of the Prius risen? Second, what happened that made it possible for Prius sales to have grown as competition became more fierce?

Briefly put, even when excluding its recent additions, the Prius is routinely one of America’s 20 best-selling passenger cars. Sales of the Liftback, which is what Toyota calls the Prius that we know best, rose 15.2% to 147,507 in 2012. Add to that another 12,750 sales of the Prius Plug-In, a car which uses the Liftback’s body.

Toyota USA did manage to sell more Prii in 2007 and 2008 than in 2012, but after three consecutive years under or around 140K units, last year’s Prius climb is meaningful. Moreover, the 15.2% year-over-year growth exceeds the overall market’s 13.4% increase. The Prius Liftback outsold the Chrysler 200, Mazda 3, Subaru Outback, Volkswagen Passat, Kia Soul, Nissan Sentra, and BMW 3-Series last year. (More recently, the Prius quartet outsold the whole Buick division; Cadillac, Audi, and Acura, too, and ranked as America’s 15th-best-selling vehicle line in January.)

We’re long past wondering how Toyota sells tens of thousands of Prii each year. That’s been going on for nearly a decade. Switching from a small sedan to a roomy hatchback played a large role in the transition from niche hybrid to mainstream player. Maintaining affordability helps, too, regardless of how many members of the enthusiast press loathe the car’s sterilized dynamics.

U.S. Prius volume first topped 100,000 units in 2005. But back then, the Prius accounted for 6% of Toyota brand sales. In 2012, the Prius Liftback was worth 8.4% of Toyota brand sales, equal to the Prius’s value to Toyota in the model’s highest-volume year, 2008.

One could have imagined, however, that in 2012, Toyota would have sold more Prii overall, but only because of the addition of the Prius V, Prius C, and Prius Plug-In. And yes, Prius family sales rose 73.4%, an increase of more than 100,000 units compared with 2011, when the family consisted of the Liftback and less than half a year of effort from the Prius V.

In ten months, the Prius C contributed more than 35,000 units. The Prius V added nearly 41,000 more. In theory, the Liftback’s 19,443-unit increase came about not in spite of the C, V, and Plug-In, but because of their debuts. Rather than cannibalizing the conventional Prius, as one might have expected when a more versatile model and a cheaper hatchback were added to the fleet, the Prius Liftback has benefited. Even in Canada, where the Prius V outsells the Prius Liftback, sales of the original have grown quickly, although the Prius family does not have the impact in Canada that it does in the U.S.

Perhaps it’s the marketing dollars spent informing consumers about the new C and V – messaging which, by proxy, marketed the original Prius, too. In addition to the marketing, there’s no doubt that an increased level of competition does wonders for established players, if’n it don’t kill’em.

Just as individual fast food outlets can thrive when positioned next door to one another in a shopping mall’s food court, newfangled automobiles can, periodically, fare better when others roam in the vicinity. The BMW 6-Series, Mercedes-Benz SL, and Porsche 911 all posted above-average increases in 2012. No one model advanced at the expense of the other two. The same thing occurred with the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Mercedes-Benz GLK, three German rivals which together grew at an above-average rate.

As for the Prius, not only do the Prius C, slightly more popular Prius V, and Prius Plug-In shine a light on the Prius patriarch, the increased hybrid awareness brought on by gas-electric derivatives of mainstream cars do the same. It seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that the attention we pour out on the Leaf, Volt, Fusion Hybrid, and even the Tesla Model S causes consumers to take a second look at an old darling of the green car fanbase. The result? This car which seemed so alien in 1999 is now as normal and expected as most midsize sedans.

Naturally, there’s a flip side to the coin. Honda Insight sales fell 62% to 5846 units in the U.S. last year.

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45 Comments on “As Prius Sales Rise, So Do Sales Of The Prius...”


  • avatar
    Summicron

    The kid loves his Prius. I’m still spooked after the gas engine cut off during my first take off from the curb into traffic. Talk about a vertigo moment! My instincts screamed “Engine Dead… Head For Curb!” but my mind overrode and I just kept driving.

    I think Toyota has brilliantly hit a demographic sweet spot… the Prius is the Mao-suit of contemporary vehicles. Nobody can tell a damn thing about you from what you drive. People of many ages and social strata are flocking to this excellent car.

    • 0 avatar

      That is unless you plaster it with “NO WAR FOR OIL” stickers. So Prius without stickers is probably owned by some kind of gun enthusiast.

    • 0 avatar
      carlisimo

      People have rediscovered how great a wagon(-ish) can be!

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        +1.

        At least here in West LA, the number of people that went from SUVs to Priuses as fads changed, are staggering.

        Besides, the Prius have quietly (perhaps not so much) become very competent cars. Fears about frightfully expensive repairs have dissipated to the point where few self respecting cabbies feel compelled to spend more on gas than a Prius necessitates. And the same thing increasingly holds for long distance exurban commuters, despite them hailing from the last strongholds of so called “conservatism” here in CA.

        For transportation duty in a $4/gallon world, the Prius is just a pretty good proposition. Even if we should turn out to be heading for a new ice age.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    “what happened that made it possible for Prius sales to have grown as competition became more fierce?”

    The Prius is a mainstream car with no compromises (except for the plug-in). All you do is put gas in it.
    Its real-life fuel economy is unmatched, as is its quality.
    It’s affordably priced.
    Expansion of the line offers more opportunities for growth; I personally like the V a lot.
    The Prius is now The Fuel Economy Standard by which others are measured.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      “Its real-life fuel economy is unmatched, as is its quality.”

      This is a quantifiable and true statement? The Prius is the most fuel effcient and highest quality vehicle on the road today bar none?

      Not that I have a bone to pick with Prius or Prius drivers – I just consider them an enthusiast car of a different sort (until one hyper-miling in the left lane forces me to merge into the faster moving right lane).

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        According to many sources, the Prius is quite reliable year after year. Here is the TrueDelta data: http://www.truedelta.com/Toyota-Prius/reliability-272

        Reported fuel economy is routinely mid-40s to mid-50s.

        Can’t think of any other car with such high marks.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        I got 50 MPG when I had a loaner Prius with zero attempt at anything remotely considered driving for economy. The power output, in light of the mileage, was ok. But the dynamics were dreadful. Stereo sucked, too. When stuck in your car from 3 to 4 hours a day, these things matter. I was never so happy to get my Altima hybrid back, Sure 31 MPG is a far cry from 50. But in comparison it felt like a 911 with Carnigie Hall onboard. Yeah, its that different…

  • avatar
    djoelt1

    We were in the market for a replacement compact as our commuter car 2 years ago, but when I heard about the Prius C we waited. We didn’t want the larger Prius (cost and length – we live where parking spots are small and rare). We are very happy with our “C” and it’s only the second new car my spouse and I have owned in the 60+ years we’ve been driving (the other new car either of us bought was in 1988). Yes, it motivated us to buy a new car. I routinely get over 60 mpg on the way to work. It’s a remarkable vehicle and our family car would be a Prius too if a model came with seven seats.

    We live an in area where you can count over 150 per hour as you walk or drive around town (including ones parked).

  • avatar
    Junebug

    It really doesn’t seem that weird anymore or driven by nerdy types. I think Will Ferral did a great job with one in “The Other Guys” I almost wanted to buy one after the movie. Then the oldest daughter started smart mouthing it and I let that notion slide, college kids are so smart-no not really!

  • avatar
    nickeled&dimed

    50 miles per gallon. That’s what drives Prius sales… they might not be rated for it, but we can achieve this number every other tank here in DC. Slow, moving traffic helps ~ 50mph average.

    Combine the high mileage with improved interiors, slightly changed styling, and more effective advertising, and you have a much broader base. Also, it’s been almost a decade since the 2004 Gen II “liftback” or “classic” Prius came out, so there have been a lot of “impressions” in the time since as people get rides, test drive, or rent them. My first time driving a Prius was a rental in 2009. It is definitely a different driving experience, and fun in a different sort of way. Enough older models are out there now that a younger generation of drivers (myself included) can afford the used market, and the high mileage doesn’t matter quite as much with the service history of most of these. Of course, there are ones out there with failing battery packs, but in general, these are one of the lowest cost to own cars on the market today – just look at TrueDelta’s stats.

    That said, they certainly aren’t perfect. I’m 6′ and cannot sit in the back seat without bending my head down or slouching. The ride is a bit jousty and loud – it certainly wouldn’t be the road trip car if it weren’t for that wonderfully high fuel economy we get with it. Still, benefits outweigh the downsides.

  • avatar
    redliner

    How long before the Camry plays second fiddle to the Prius? It seems inevitable.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      Bingo.. Bullseye… Slam Dunk

      I volunteer as compensated poster-boy for that transition.
      Probably next year, gonna observe the one Prius in the family a mite longer.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “How long before the Camry plays second fiddle to the Prius? It seems inevitable.”

      No way. The Camry still handily outsells the Prius. Perhaps more importantly, the family sedan market is substantially larger than the hybrid market.

      Toyota dominates the hybrid market, and the Prius name has itself morphed into a brand in its own right. That is both a blessing and a curse for the future of the hybrid market. As Toyota continues to dominate hybrids, with the Prius name carrying most of TMC’s hybrid sales, that dominance may very well motivate other automakers to completely punt on the hybrid segment. That in turn will doom the hybrid to remaining a niche product, which oddly enough assures the Camry of its survival.

      • 0 avatar
        Summicron

        What else besides hybrids is there for a 50+mpg future that doesn’t rely on a Miracle Breakthrough! in battery tech?

        And besides, a large enough niche is no longer a niche.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        “What else besides hybrids is there for a 50+mpg future that doesn’t rely on a Miracle Breakthrough!”

        Sales figures suggest that a lot of people don’t care very much about that.

        Fuel economy is just one aspect of the purchase decision. For many, the comparison is more relative than absolute — buyers accept a given level of fuel economy for a given vehicle segment and choose accordingly, rather than try to get the highest figures available in the market.

        “And besides, a large enough niche is no longer a niche.”

        During 2012, total hybrid market share in the US was 3%. And of the total hybrid sales, 72% of them went to TMC, and 52% specifically to a version of the Prius. The small market size is the mark of a niche, and the failure of other automakers to capitalize on it almost guarantees that it remains a niche.

      • 0 avatar
        Summicron

        @Pch101

        I agree fuel economy is not the paramount purchasing criterion for most, but the industry will be governmentally forced to treat it as paramount for anything with an ICE.

        Toyota’s significant lead in hybrid tech seems unbeatable and the Prius “brand” seems best positioned to lead a necessarily hybrid future.

        But it’s cool if you’re right…. I’ll just get another Camry.
        For the foreseeable future, Toyota ichiban da yo.

      • 0 avatar
        TW4

        Toyota believe the Prius will be their #1 selling nameplate before this decade is out. It is unclear how they will achieve this feat, but I believe rumors are circulating that the Prius Liftback design will be diluted to make it more conventional. The Prius already exceeds CAFE 2025 by 25%, and the next gen is supposedly going to beat CAFE 2025 by 50%.

        The hybrid segment will not remain niche. CAFE changes are underway, and the only current models that meet the 2025 40mpg combined rating are hybrids. If the hybrid segment remains niche, it will result from dropping the ‘hybrid’ moniker or redefining hybrids as hypermilers. The technology will continue to expand.

    • 0 avatar
      nickeled&dimed

      We put the insurance payout for our 2001 Camry (totaled while parked) into a 2005 Prius. It was a no-brain-er.

    • 0 avatar
      vwgolf420

      I would buy a Prius. The Camry is dead last on the list of passenger cars I would buy.

      • 0 avatar
        Quentin

        I own a Prius v and the Camry platform has a better ride and likely better handling (I haven’t pushed either, admittedly). In fact, if the Camry hybrid was a wagon, I would have purchased that over my Prius v. The 2.5L HSD powertrain in the Camry Hybrid (and Avalon and ES300h) is an absolute peach. It is forced to rev much less than the 1.8L HSD in my v and it performs better than the 200hp would imply. Motor Trend found that it was just a hair slower than Hyundai’s 2.0T Sonata while returning much, much better gas mileage (13mpg better as tested, IIRC). The Camry is simply a very competant car made for 90% of the drivers out there. By appealing to everyone, you give up the traits that appeal to enthusiasts. Yeah, it isn’t going to appeal to the enthusiast, but why would an enthusiast ever expect a FWD midsize sedan to be fun in the first place? Most people don’t like the stiff suspension and twitchy steering/handling of sports cars. That is why a vast majority of midsize sedans don’t have those traits.

  • avatar
    otter

    I’ve driven the 2nd-generation cars rather a lot at work, as my employer has a lot of them in its fleet, and I can understand how it appeals to so many people. But I can’t really understand how it could appeal to anyone who likes driving; I’ve never been in a more vanilla car to drive. When its driving dynamics aren’t putting me to sleep, they’re trying to dress me in pleated khakis and a polo shirt and get me to join a suburban country club.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      Core distinction… liking driving.
      I hate driving, but I love cars that get me through it safely, comfortably and that love me back long time.

      Seems I’m not alone.

      • 0 avatar
        otter

        Yes, and since most car buyers do not prioritize entertaining driving dynamics very highly, it’s no wonder that the car is so popular with so many buyer demographics. I’ve driven Priuses on a couple of long trips but mostly for city and suburban work, and they are great for that even if they put me to sleep. I never thought a car would make me seek out something as dull as a current-model Civic, or as fleet-like as an Impala, though! Even though I hate driving in the city (I’d rather use my bicycles) I want to enjoy it as much as I can when I do have to do it….

      • 0 avatar
        Summicron

        @otter

        I suspect our different perspectives are just an age thing.
        And I love your avatar.

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      I’ve driven a 3rd gen Prius with the bigger wheels, and didn’t find it all that bad. Power delivery was a little odd, but other than that, it felt closer to my 2010 Civic (not a bad little car) than the Corolla I drove immediately after. I’m not sure I could ever part with my own money for one, but they’re aggressively unique enough I at least think about it. I also have to give Toyota credit, for actually making a car people feel passionate about.

    • 0 avatar

      It wasn’t too long ago that the best selling non-pickup in the US had solid axle leaf spring horse cart suspension, 4000 lbs, 160hp, 4-speed slushbox, and rolled over easily. Only exciting if you enjoy near death experiences.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Unmatched fuel economy, reputation for quality and durability plus high resale value, high safety rankings. Why isn’t the Prius ranked higher? Actually, I know a few reasons. There’s that weird brace between the front seats. Not everybody is a fan of digital instruments. It can get rather pricey, and the option packages are bizarre. It’s not slow, but it’s less than fast. Wind and road noise can be an issue. I looked at buying a used GEN-2 Prius before ordering a 2013 C-Max. The C-MAX won’t get the MPG of the Prius, but it it is quieter, quicker, a little roomier inside, plus it’s made in the US, and I can order it the way I want it. As to the C-Max’s looks, let’s say it has a nice pesonality.

    • 0 avatar
      KixStart

      As a Prius owner, I welcome the C-Max to the market, along with the Prius C, Prius V and Prius PHV. It’s great to have more choices. I hope you enjoy your car. But I disagree, I think it looks good. Not Maserati Quattroporte good… but good.

  • avatar
    E46M3_333

    While I can appreciate the benefits of 50MPG, the driving dynamics are a deal breaker for me. I can’t stand the feel associated with regenerative braking. It’s completely different than having an individual disk clamping at each wheel.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Expanding a successful model’s line without cannibalizing sales from the existing one has always been a tough act. The key is that the hybrid market is still wide open and there’s more than enough pie to go around for many different models, including those from other manufacturers.

    Toyota took the huge risk and expenditure on hybrids over a decade ago, were lucky enough to get it right quickly (as opposed to Honda), and are now reaping the dividends (and rightfully so).

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    Say whatever you want to say about break feel, dynamics, oversteer, understeer, rebound damping, gender change, political stickers or quality of plastics: It does work very well.
    The darn thing returns 50 mpg out of the box, does not break down, does not cost a fortune to acquire and operate, maintains its value better than anything out there short of a convertible Ferrari, performs allright in city and suburban traffic and can easily cruise at 75mph on the interstate without much fuss.
    Yeah, there are cars out there that do better in some of these categories – but none do the same in all of them like the Prius does.
    Disclaimer: I do NOT own one, but do rent Prius when they are available

  • avatar
    gasser

    Prius will outsell Camry two weeks after gas hits $6 a gallon.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    If you are going to drive a dull penalty box, you might as well drive one that gets great mpg, is reliable, and has a hatch so it extremely functional. Which is why I got my Mother to get buy a Prius V to haul herself and the Grandparents around. A solid 45mpg without trying and it will probably never break.

    Not for me though, if I cared about mileage I would buy a C-Max, they are actually nice to drive.

  • avatar
    Ciriya.com

    I have a gen II Prius and it holds almost as much crap as my Ford Explorer, and has nearly equal backseat room.. And unlike other boring cars, if I want to drive it like a bastard, it won’t actively try to dissuade me or kill me, which is more than I can say for some much more expensive cars (Acura TL, anyone?). It’s strangely fun to thrash around winding mountain roads, even if it’s not exactly fast. Driving it around Tehachapi, CA (where Car and Driver tests their COTY candidates) is a freaking blast.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    My wife bought a Prius to replace her Explorer. Her first choice was a Prius V but we found that it really didn’t have much more cargo room than the regular Prius and because it starts out as a heavier vehicle Toyota left off some features (like power seats) that the regular Prius has, to save weight.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    “We understand the rationale behind the Prius V wagon. It’s a natural progression from the smaller hatchback, and quite frankly we wonder what took Toyota so long to bring it to market.

    That said, the Jetta SportWagen TDI is simply more rewarding to drive in nearly every situation…drives, looks and simply behaves more like a “regular” wagon. Call us crazy, but when we press the accelerator, turn the steering wheel or even want to manually select a gear, the Jetta SportWagen actually goes, turns and shifts like we expect.” Edmunds comparison of the two.

  • avatar
    toomanycrayons

    I can’t understand the cheap/sweaty vinyl seats in the high end models. Does the target demographic find them reassuring like Depends? For that kind of money it should be better than a picnic table covering. Some perforations might help. You can’t get a panoramic (plastic) sun roof without them, either. Without that feature the experience is decidedly claustrophobic, especially in the original. BTW, how much head light polish is it going to take when they yellow/fog, just out of warranty? Tried them all. Walked away. I don’t want to rush the Depends…


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