A decade ago, the Toyota Prius was one of the hottest vehicles on the market. Celebrities who would never usually consider buying a car from the iconic Japanese brand fell in love with the car and wanted people to see them in it.
The reasons for this were unique. The Prius was essentially the first mass-market hybrid, allowing drivers to travel through the city on electric power alone. The Hollywood elite loved this fact because it allowed them to show off their green credentials. Before long, top-ranking actors like Leonardo di Caprio and Cameron Diaz owned one.
Prius sales began rising from around 2003 and throughout the rest of the decade. Rising oil prices meant that consumers wanted vehicles that offered them better mileage while also giving them range when they needed it. And the Prius fit that niche. It was a great way to fight back against gas price pressures and reduce the cost of living.
The Prius was also pretty much the only viable vehicle in its class before 2010. Yes – a few other manufacturers had options. But none of them had nailed the technology as Toyota had. They just didn’t perform as well.
People didn’t even associate the Prius with Toyota at all. It was almost like it was a separate brand. And the fact that the model appeared in multiple pop culture references, such as South Park and Family Guy, made it even more appealing.
But then things started going downhill for the hybrid electric. In 2012 sales peaked and, following that, they plummeted, to the point today where they are barely 25 percent of what they were.
So why has this happened?
Well, partly, it has to do with the culture shift. The type of people who would have bought a Prius in the past is now going for all-electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Model 3. Plus, easier residential car charger installation now means that EVs are a practical option for virtually anybody. The process is just far less complicated than it was in the past.
Then there are the technical issues. Before Elon Musk came along, Toyota was very much an automotive innovation leader, creating all kinds of new technologies that promised to transform the market. But over the last ten years, people no longer look to it for industry leadership. It’s just not as advanced in the electric drivetrain department as its California-based rival.
There is nothing wrong with the Prius today. The Mark III is actually a very competent and capable vehicle. And fifteen years ago, people would have loved it.
But today we are at an inflection point. Buyers have more hybrid vehicle options (many of which are more exciting). And battery prices are coming down to the point where all-electrics are a real economic possibility, not just something “for the future.”
The Prius will always have a place in popular culture. But if Toyota wants the franchise to achieve its former success, they’re going to have to give it an attitude change.
Photo Credit: Toyota