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Does the Toyota Prius still matter?

12-2011-toyota-prius

 

Toyota remains incredibly proud of its green halo car, the Prius. On the company website, it calls the gas-electric car, "The hybrid that started it all." Chances are, if someone tells you to think of a hybrid car today, your first thought is going to be the Prius. Now a cultural icon, the Prius changed a lot of attitudes about what an efficient car is able to achieve.

 

But the car is aging, despite numerous refreshes and model tweaks over the years, and sales dropped 11.5 percent last year. It's taken Toyota 25 years of ups and downs to get the Prius to where it is today, and we started wondering if that's too long for the car to remain viable in an era of 40+ mile-per-gallon non-hybrid cars and a plethora of plug-in competitors for the green car crown (we're not the only ones).

Plus, Toyota is rapidly shifting its green focus away from the Prius and towards the hydrogen-powered Mirai fuel cell car. But if you ask Toyota representatives if the Prius is still a vital car in 2015 – and we did – you'll find that there's still a lot of love for the car that went before.

For example, Geri Yoza is a Toyota national manager who spent years traveling all across the US teaching people about the Prius. The veteran of countless customer education sessions told AutoblogGreen that it took a long time for the Prius to "cross the technology chasm," and that it wasn't until about a decade after launch that the car became a common sight outside of the initial popularity hotspots. "It takes a while for people to become confident in the technology, to understand that it's been proven," she said. Now that the hybrid is ensconced in the public mind, it's time for the next step. "I think the Prius, the whole idea 'to go before,' was to go before the Mirai."

Toyota Mirai

Part of that precursor status is due to the fact that a lot of the Prius' powertrain technology has made the jump to the Mirai. When we asked Bob Carter, Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations, if the Prius still matters, he had a clear answer: "My goodness, yes."

"We've been selling hybrids for 25 years," he said, "but when you go back, we had said that the Prius and hybrid technology were a bridge to the future and we were very clear that it's going to be a very long bridge. Essentially, and I'm not an engineer, the Mirai takes the technology from the Prius and takes the ICE engine out and puts a fuel cell stack in. [Hybrids are] a core technology for us and will continue as far into the future as I can see."

Satoshi Ogiso, the managing officer for Toyota Motor Corporation, was deeply involved in the Prius program and now works on the Mirai project. He told AutoblogGreen that the Prius remains "very important," because it continues to give customers powertrain options in the cars they want to drive. Premium innovation should come from Toyota's Lexus brand, he said, but "affordable high-tech innovation," should come from Toyota – and that means the Prius.

Former AutoblogGreen editor and current analyst for Navigant Research Sam Abuelsamid said that, "The Prius absolutely still matters. Even with the decline in sales in 2014, it remains by a wide margin the best-selling hybrid brand in the world. There are several factors that have come together in the past couple of years that contributed to the sales decline. The current Prius is at the end of its life cycle with a new generation expected to debut later this year, fuel prices in the US have declined, hurting efficiency-minded models like Prius and there is plenty of new competition from other HEV, PHEV and BEV models.

"That new competition means Prius has to become even more appealing to mainstream audiences, with more amenities, better driving dynamics and an affordable price point. I think the Prius V was a good addition to the lineup, but the Prius C might have been a step too far, too small and not any more efficient. The Prius PHEV also didn't add enough all-electric range or mileage to justify the cost premium."

Abuelsamid said that despite the Prius' role in introducing the Mirai, we shouldn't count the gas-electric hybrid out yet. "As for Mirai, it is getting Toyota's attention right now because fuel cells are the company's focus for the ZEV market and they need to sell them to meet the ZEV mandate in California and other states," Abuelsamid said. "Once the gen-IV Prius arrives, I'm sure we'll see a big marketing push for that car, especially if it offers a boost in mileage."

When you talk to Toyota representatives, you get the feeling they're already planning for the day 25 years from now when they can look back and view MIrai with the same lens that we use on the Prius today. Even as the automaker is getting ready for the shift to a hydrogen economy, Yoza knows that the Prius continues to expose people to some new-to-them technology, like a car with a big battery and an electric motor, and it does so in a safe way. "We did a very good job making sure we brought out a very reliable vehicle to market," she said, thinking back to hear years engaging with potential customers. The new Mirai, she added, has gone through the same sort of engineering stress tests in places like Yellowknife, NWT, Canada and Death Valley, CA so that when it arrives it'll be just as reliable as the Prius. Most people don't think twice about buying a Prius today, she said, and that's her challenge with the Mirai. She's been tapped to be repeat those endless hours of customer education sessions, just with fuel cells this time.


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37 Comments

    turbo_awd
    turbo_awd
        1 Hour Ago

    I think the Prius will continue to matter A LOT to Toyota, when they find that people just don't want hydrogen cars..

    Reply

JaredN
JaredN

    1 Hour Ago

The main problem with the Prius today is that it is getting old.  Once its replacement arrives (and gas prices rise again), Prius sales will increase.  While the Prius is not my kind of car, there is no denying its success.

    Reply

BipDBo
BipDBo

    35 Minutes Ago

Well to wheel efficiency for a gas burning Prius will probably always be better than that of the Mirai or any other H2 vehicle, so it will always be more important than hydrogen cars.

    Reply

Rotation
Rotation

    1 Hour Ago

Yes. It matters a lot. For anyone who drives a lot it's a big deal. It's a huge fleet car.

Taxis are frequently Priuses. And Taxis won't soon be able to make much use of plug-in capabilities because 40 miles added in a day when you drive 400 is peanuts.

    Reply

mikeybyte1
mikeybyte1

    1 Hour Ago

I think it's amazing that after 25 years nobody has yet to make a direct competitor to this car. Yes there are lots of hybrids out there. But none are "from the ground up" designs. And none can match it's efficiency. Although there are lots of ICE powered cars getting over 40mpg, remember that city mileage is also import to many. For some it is more important than highway mileage. Prius beats all of those 40mpg cars in the city.

I think going forward that PHEVs will be the biggest threat to the Prius. I agree with the statement in this article that the Prius PHEV is pretty bad due to low all electric mileage. I think if Chevy made a Volt that a) truly seated 5, b) had good cargo room, and b) sold for under $30k it would be much more competitive. Sadly Volt 2.0 does not. The Prius is a great appliance vehicle with excellent room, and city/highway mileage. But it is cheap, tinny, and boring to drive. As more companies make PHEVs that surpass it in the 3 areas I listed above, Prius will be forced to step up its game.

As for the Mirai, I just don't see it following in the footsteps of the Prius. Hydrogen production, distribution, and storage are a massive impediment to rolling out a hydrogen based transportation system.I think PHEVs and BEVs are the future.

    Reply

    ScottT
    ScottT
        48 Minutes Ago
    @mikeybyte1

    The Honda Insight was/is designed from the ground up hybrid.  The original was significantly more efficient than the Prius.   I think its smaller interior and questionable design limited it's success.  

        Reply
    View 2 replies

ferps
ferps

    28 Minutes Ago

Toyota is taking a big risk by investing so heavily in fuel cells instead of battery-powered EVs.

    Reply

mapoftazifosho
mapoftazifosho

    1 Hour Ago

I'm so sick of everyone talking up cars that hit 40 MPG highway that return less than half that in the city...such a shortsighted fanboi comparison. Like hey, let's forget about 50% of the drive cycle. We're now within 10 highway MPG of the Prius hybrid...so Hybrids don't matter...


COOL STORY!

    Reply

    Scooter
    Scooter
        1 Hour Ago
    @mapoftazifosho

    Yeah, i mean i can get near that in my 280hp turbo car, but yeah it's all about that golden 40mpg hwy figure, then city is like 25-.

    Reply

Scooter
Scooter

    1 Hour Ago

@mapoftazifosho

Yeah, i mean i can get near that in my 280hp turbo car, but yeah it's all about that golden 40mpg hwy figure, then city is like 25-.

        Reply

Midway1095
Midway1095

    19 Minutes Ago

Twenty-five years? I didn't realize Toyota started selling Priuses in 1990. I thought it was 1998 or so.

    Reply

Neez
Neez

    33 Minutes Ago

The prius is still relevant because society still doesn't care about being green.  The ones that do are the minority.  Society still cares about one thing and one thing only, money!!!!!  The prius wins in cost of ownership, large electric battery packs costs too much money.  So for long commuters, taxi drivers, and people who drive alot, a plug-in hybrid doesn't make sense.  For $22k, you can buy a prius.  For $30k+ you can buy a plug-in hybrid with limited all electric range.  You'll never recover your costs through the life of the vehicle unless you strictly drive less than 30 miles per day and still within the all electric envelope.

At least with a prius, if you drive alot, you can recover your costs over a traditional vehicle within a few years when fuel prices climb back up beyond $4 a gallon.  At $4 a gallon, you'll save about $600 per year over say a civic or corolla.

    Reply

Design1stCode2nd
Design1stCode2nd

    56 Minutes Ago

The Prius still does very well and I'm sure it will continue with the next version.


The Mirai will face harder obstacles to adoption than the Prius did by the mere fact it doesn't use widely available gasoline. Even BEV's will have an easier time.

    Reply

imag
imag

    36 Minutes Ago

Undoubtedly, EVs have cut into Priuses sales as well.  This is to be expected, as the car goes from being one of the only green options to being one of a selection.

That just means the Prius will be valued for its ability to do long trips or drive extensively around town.  That doesn't mean it's irrelevant.

    Reply

Car Guy
Car Guy

    1 Hour Ago

If all you care about is MPG in a hybrid car then Prius matters.  If they can maintain the MPG crown than they will stay relevant.  

        Reply
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