By on March 22, 2017


Can a hybrid vehicle really shine when there’s a plug-in sibling hogging both the spotlight and the technological podium? For some automakers new to the game, time will tell. But at Toyota, which first made “hybrid” a household word, it seems the introduction of a new Prius variant has tentatively confirmed doubts about the viability of the stock Prius.

We’ll gain better perspective as 2017 plays out, but so far, it’s looking like the Prius Prime plug-in is doing well, and the Prius is maintaining the status quo. Which is to say, it’s not doing well.

The Prius Prime, first sold in the U.S. in November, adopts distinctive styling that sets it apart from its sibling, as well as a 8.8 kWh battery that provides 25 miles of all-electric driving range. Toyota unloaded 1,362 units in February and 1,366 in January, making the Prius Prime the second-best-selling plug-in (electric or hybrid) in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if these numbers take off come spring.

Toyota seems pretty pleased with its sales so far. California dealers are even asking for more Prius Prime volume, said Bill Fay, Toyota’s group vice president, in a recent interview with Wards Auto.

As for the Prius, its 2017 sales are significantly below the same period last year. The automaker sold 4,553 units in January and 5,418 in February. That’s well below the 6,102 and 7,169 seen in the same months in 2016, which saw an annual sales tally of 98,866 units — the lowest since 2004 and the end point of a marked decline that began after 2012.

The Prius faces the same problem faced by other conventional hybrid passenger cars, Basically, waning consumer interest in both the bodystyle and in an expensive technology that doesn’t offer an all-electric driving mode. These days, any new hybrid worth building had best be followed up with a plug-in variant. Take Hyundai’s Ioniq, for example, or Kia’s Niro.

Still, the introduction of a new Prius (for 2016) didn’t translate into renewed sales, and the downward trend shows no sign of ending. Even before the Prius Prime debuted, some at Toyota wondered if future improvements to the Prius would be worth it.

“Ultimately, PHEV may be the way to go,” said Shoichi Kaneko, assistant chief engineer for the Prius Prime, back in September.

The automaker certainly doesn’t seem to know what the future holds for the Prius. Fay pondered that a crossover-style Prius-badged vehicle could appeal to buyers, but wouldn’t make a promise. However, he stills hold out hope for a reversal of the Prius’ fortunes.

Toyota is “optimistic the consumer will find their way back” to the regular Prius, he said.

[Image: Toyota Motor Corporation]

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42 Comments on “The Prius Prime’s Sales Seem to Confirm Toyota’s Worries About the Regular Prius...”

  • avatar

    This article lacks pricing info, so I looked it up. The Prime is about $2500 more than the base Prius Two, but does add quite a few features as well.

    Buyers must be thinking that the value proposition of the Prime is worth the extra money.

    Meanwhile, the lack of interest in the Prius overall seems to be driving down the prices on used models. That’s great, because I’m strongly considering picking up a used one in Autumn.

    • 0 avatar

      No value proposition involved. Being a PHEV makes it eligible for all sorts of tax initiatives that the Prius no longer qualifies for. A friend just bought a Prius Prime and it qualifies for $4500 in federal tax credit, $1500 in California tax credit, $500 in local utility cash back, and even up to $2000 in county tax rebates if you live in the right place. The Prime also qualifies for carpool lane stickers, which no longer applies to normal hybrids like the Prius. This makes the Prime a way better deal than a normal Prius.

      Dealers in California can’t keep them in stock and are charging within a few hundred of MSRP for them. Even with the normal Prius at 6-8k off and the Prime at MSRP, the Prime is a better deal with more features. Hence, the great sales figures.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually because of tax credits it’s actually cheaper than the regular Prius for many buyers. So it has more features and costs less. The only negative is the lack of a fifth seat.

  • avatar

    It’s not my cup of tea, but my parents have been nothing but thrilled with their 2010. I am not sure, but I think they got a Prius III. One of the things about it that has stunned me is the maintenance on it; or rather the lack thereof.

    For example, 7 years and over 120,000 miles later and the factory brake pads are still at just under 50% I think. See, if you don’t drive like a jerk and brake gently and smoothly then the car is braking with the dynamic brakes more than the friction brakes. Of course if you drive like an idiot and are constantly jamming on the brakes then you wear the conventional friction brakes more normally.

    That’s just one example. The whole drivetrain on the car seems to just wear slower since the electric motors are helping to shoulder the burden of moving the car from a stop.

    The whole thing really is a very sensible car. It really would be ideal for me if I would just let go of my ego and drop the whole “must drive a 2+2 2-door coupe” thing. But I am not particularly interested in doing that, so I leave the sensible cars to more sensible people. Like my parents, or you I suppose.

    • 0 avatar

      This post was meant to be in reply to eggsalad, but WordPress being what it is, here we are.

    • 0 avatar

      At exactly 10 years and 175K miles, my 07 finally needed front brakes.

      And that’s probably only because I gave it to my wife a couple years ago. She’s not even remotely aware it’s a hybrid with some unique capabilities that she could exploit, if she wanted, like dynamic braking (as you put it).

      But then again, she doesn’t work or pay the bills. So there’s that…

    • 0 avatar

      Substitute “cabbie” for jerk. Every non cab Prius I have been in, have had nice brakes. Even Ubers. While pretty much every single Prius Cab, have warped, worn out rotors.

  • avatar

    Would be nice to know how many Prime buyers bought it for the plug-in feature and how many bought it to avoid the regular Prius’s taillights.

    Plug-in is a wonderful thing if you live in a place with relatively cheap/clean power and you have a place to put the charger. But it doesn’t work for everyone.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Since the dawn of the Volt, I’ve maintained that people would shun ‘duel-fuel’ vehicles, not wanting to deal with both a plug *and* a gas tank.

      But I guess I was wrong. Many Volt drivers only buy gas every couple months, so they get the benefits of an EV, but without range anxiety.

      Although conventional hybrids are still easier to own (no charger required), and sell in much higher volume, certain plug-ins are doing well, also. Some plug-ins have been duds.

      It may be that the Prius Prime isn’t stealing sales from the regular Prius, but rather the Prime is filling a market niche for Toyota that the regular Prius could not.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve always been of exactly the opposite opinion. Perhaps shaped by living in SF, where “everyone” only makes sub 25 mile trips 98% of the time, but then drives to LA or Portland or Vegas or Jackson, WY for the remainder. For that kind of usage, the only thing more optimal, would be a “cassette” drivetrain, so one could swap the gasoline components for a bigger battery during the week, then put the gas parts back in for the weekend.

    • 0 avatar

      This! They could just swap the ugly a$$ taillights and see if the sales balance is driven by the plug or the style. My bet is it’s the actively offensive styling.

  • avatar

    I wonder how many of those Prius Prime buyers bought the car over the standard Prius solely based on the styling difference.

    Call me shallow, but the current Prius styling is a little too “avant-garde” for me, and I find the look of the Prius Prime to be a lot more pleasing. I will gladly pay extra for that alone.

    • 0 avatar

      Avant garde is the most polite way to describe it. The current Prius (and I am by no means a Prius hater) is probably the ugliest car on the road, and considering the crap Nissan’s been churning out, that says a LOT.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree. I didn’t mind the styling of the previous generation, but this new one is fugly both inside and out.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, it seems everyone who’s bicthed for the past decade or two about the boring styling of Toyotas is now getting their comeuppance. My hot take is that it won’t hurt sales because you can’t see the exterior so well from the driver’s seat.

  • avatar

    The regular Prius is still outselling the Prime by more than 3-to-1 so I wouldn’t write it off just yet.

    A plug-in hybrid offers no advantages to me over a hybrid without a plug because I have nowhere to plug it in and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. A regular old hybrid without the weight and complexity of a charging system and extra battery seems like a much better deal for me and probably for a lot of other people.

  • avatar

    California sales of “Clean Air Vehicles” are driven first and last by single occupant, HOV carpool lane access. This sticker is worth 30 min to 1 hour a day of your life back for my Bay Area colleagues. I would bet a similar effect from the LA region as well.

    Here is the list.

    California is now issuing unlimited plugin hybrids “green stickers” until January 1, 2019.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup. The Prime is the new official car of all Bay Area commuters without a garage or other reliable charger access. Just a regular hybrid hauling around a bunch of lithium for no other reason than to signal that you can afford it, hence be allowed to drive in the “privilegeds only” lane.

      Nothing wrong with the car. If you do have charger access, and in all seriousness many do, it is a heck of a well optimized solution for the kind of mostly urban, occasional road trip “lifestyle” that is common for lots of urbanites. But even with a charger, when commuting between SF and San Jose is what the car is overwhelmingly used for, you’re still mostly driving a regular hybrid, hauling a bunch of lithium around for no reason other than paying for a privilege pass.

      • 0 avatar

        And you know this how?

        • 0 avatar

          From the excitement about this car, from poor saps who still haven’t figured out an important part of being human is being able to get around on two legs and wheels rather than four, making long commutes down the peninsula while street parking in SF. Of course, once they have to exit their newfound HOV lane bliss somewhere arounf Palo Alto or San Jose, they’re still stuck in the one mile per month parade past Zuckerberg’s house wondering if there are parking spaces available closer than Fresno, but at least they get that far a little faster.

  • avatar

    My fiancee bought a new 19 Prius. We both really like the car. It is our 4th toyota hybrid and is the best. Seats are great, getting prox 50mpg and had great performance compared to past models. The seating is the best part IMO. My rav hybrid is ok but the seating is more upright and legroom is tighter. Didn’t check out the prime but we do not have a garage for charging. I am growing accustomed to the tail lights so they are OK. She paid $21.5K for the base model and that is a good price IMO.
    When I sold my first [04 Prius] to my son it had 95K on it and the brakes were prox half worn. Alex replaced the brake pads on her 13 Prius v at 55K. She gets 36 mpg and i get over 40. So lesson is that if you drive conservatively the prius will last forever and have very low maintenance costs. But here in SO Cal everyone drives like maniacs and you can forget about low maintenance and great gas mileage.

  • avatar

    If only the Corolla had the regular Prius’ styling. So much cheaper and plenty fine MPGs for me.

  • avatar

    I love my 07. Styling is great, no console in the front to cramp things, rear doors are made for humans to enter the car (not trying to fake a coupe look), and the rear seats have HUGE legroom.

    The 2010-1015 I didn’t like for the front seating area, and the current model I REALLY don’t like because of the styling and its screwed up rear doors that are trying to fake a coupe look and its rear seats that are CRAMPED.

    I will get an 09 for my daughter.

  • avatar

    The plug in model qualifies for the full federal tax credit of $7500 so it ends up around the same net purchase price as the Prius 2. A bigger car with a much larger set of features for the same price as the low end model. No wonder it’s selling so well. . .

  • avatar
    Rick Astley

    Does Toyota release sales figures for the quantity of people who bought Prius because of it’s fun and engaging driving characteristics?

    Based upon research personally conducted in the waiting room of a very busy Discount Tire location a few months back, 100% of Prius drivers sought exact OEM replacement tires (during a cold snap with snow, which we don’t get often here in Seattle) and were unwilling to sacrifice 1 mpg for a tire that offered about 4 times the grip, better wet weather traction, shorter stopping distances and improved safety for their family vehicles. (Sample size was 5 Prius customers during 60 min wait)

    • 0 avatar

      On the other end I’ve seen a few that ask for the cheapest tire possible and end up mad because their MPG dropped.

    • 0 avatar


      Of course, I say that having just bought Nokian WR tires for my Prius. They’re GREAT tires overall for that kind of a car; I don’t care about the 1mpg or whatever. And while the old 80K mile Michelins didn’t cause me any grief, I figured having extra goodness during the cold months was worth maybe not getting 80K out of the tires.

      • 0 avatar

        Do you run the WRs year-round then? If not, what tires do you use in the non-winter months?

        • 0 avatar

          WRs are all-weather tires, and yes, I run them year-round.

          They are a superb tire. Not the cheapest, and nobody knows about them. But we have one Nokian dealer in town. He admits, the only people who buy them are either repeat buyers, or people who have been referred by owners.

    • 0 avatar

      My Mom has a 2011 she bought new. She replaced the tires with Michelin Primacy at 34k. She lost a couple miles per gallon, but the better traction and less noise more than make up for it. It now has 90k and still riding on those tires, at least for a few more months.

  • avatar

    When i went to PIrelli’s instead of the low resistance rolling tires on the 13 prius, mileages seened to drop prox 10%. tough call. The Pirelli’s handle so much better even in snow. The OEM Tires just don’t seem to work very well except for mileage. And they are expensive!!!!!

    • 0 avatar

      I did something similar on my 2011. If you increase the tire pressure a bit you can make up some of the mileage.

    • 0 avatar

      I recently replaced my 2010 Prius tires with the cheapest ones they had that fit the 17″ wheels on my Prius 5, got all 4 for under $400 at Discount, they are called Sentury tires. They ride nice are quieter and I have not noticed any mileage change. I always drive in power mode and average in the mid 40’s MPG in town. I don’t baby it and drive like a normal car. I have over 70K on it, the dealer said I still have 90% of my brake pads left. Best most reliable car I’ve ever owned.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Toyota/Lexus has hired both Bangle and his son, right?

    Truly first rate engineering.

    Truly awful styling.


  • avatar

    The Volt is better looking, quicker, and has twice the electric range. But the Prius Prime sells because it is a Toyota and the Volt is a Chevy, and some people’s car knowledge extends no further than “my dad’s crap Citation was his last American car; it’s been all Japanese for us ever since.”

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