Is Toyota's hybrid dream coming true?
The 2013 Toyota Prius c is seen in this photo courtesy of Toyota.
Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012 8:14AM EDT
Toyota Motor's dream of a world filled with mainstream cars powered by not just one but two power trains might just be coming true, despite the sometimes bilious views of critics skeptical of the very idea of gasoline-electric hybrids.
Consider the latest sales numbers: Of the 18,732 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles sold last month in Canada, more than 10 per cent (1,931) were hybrids. By expanding its Prius hybrid line to three models from just one, Toyota Canada seems to have pushed hybrids out of the "green" niche and into the everyday lives of drivers who care as much about fuel economy and reliability as they do saving the planet. Perhaps more.
Indeed, about three-quarters of the hybrids Toyota Canada sold were in the Prius family (1,422) and the big winner was the sub-$22,000 Prius c (556 sold). Toyota also points out that the Prius c accounted for one-third of all its Canadian subcompact sales.
How far have hybrids come? In all of 2001, Toyota Canada sold a paltry 418 Prius hatchbacks. In one month the Prius c has outperformed a year's worth of hybrid sales from a decade ago.
And, "Lexus' advanced hybrid luxury models represented 18.8 per cent of all Lexus vehicles sold in April," said Larry Hutchinson, senior executive director at the company.
As you might expect, hybrid sales have picked up at Toyota because the company can now make a reasonable economic case for the dual power train car. Almost, at least. In truth, Toyota Canada is pitching the 2012 Prius c hybrid ($20,950 base) as a slightly premium "green" car. It is the four-door, subcompact hatchback for the socially conscious buyer willing to pay a little extra.
The premium is not overly large, however. Compare the Prius c to a comparably equipped Toyota Yaris four-door hatch and the hybrid costs an extra $5,100. But factor in fuel costs and the price premium drops to $900 over an eight-year ownership period – less if fuel prices jump more.
The numbers: The federal government's fuel consumption guide (http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/home) calculates that the Prius c will use $6,216 in fuel over eight years ($777 a year) versus $10,416 for the Yaris ($1,302 a year). The difference: $4,200 saved by driving the Prius c.
The Prius c is smaller and slimmer than the regular Prius, but it's still big enough to carry four adults. That's good. Even better, the rear seatbacks split and fold almost completely flat. Thus, the already decent cargo area expands to carry home your IKEA packaged furniture.
As a city car, the c works just fine. The ride is a bit choppy on the highway, the electric steering is numb and you won't win any drag races when the stoplight goes green (a 0-100 km/hour time of around 11.5 seconds). The gasoline-electric combination here produces a pokey 99 hp versus 134 for the regular Prius), but if all you want is a small transportation appliance that uses very little gas (3.5 city/4.0 highway using regular fuel), this is your ride.
Toyota has a tougher time making the case for the all-new 2013 Lexus GS 450 hybrid. Billed as a "performance sedan," the GS 450h is three times the price of a Prius c ($64,500), boasts a combined output of 338 hp from its 3.5-litre V-6 engine and two electric motors and is almost twice as thirsty (6.4 litres/100 km in the city, 6.2 on the highway) as the Prius c. Even with all the engineering wizardry at work, Toyota cannot get around the fact that the GS hybrid is a porky 1,901 kg; weight is a killer for fuel economy.
Luxury and performance hybrids such as the GS 450h will surely remain a tough sell for a long time to come. That's obvious. However, are we witnessing a breakthrough in hybrid econoboxes aimed at buyers who care nothing at all about style and performance, only fuel economy, price and functionality?
If so, then we've reached an historic moment. Up until now, hybrids have primarily been bought by true believers and even they have proved to be a tough sell the second time around. A recent Polk study shows that 65 per cent of hybrid owners eschewed another hybrid with their next new-vehicle purchase. They went for a gasoline-powered ride, instead.
Take out the Toyota Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid by far with some three million sold worldwide, and less than 25 per cent of hybrid owners re-upped.
"The lineup of alternate drive vehicles and their premium price points just aren't appealing enough to consumers to give the segment the momentum it once anticipated, especially given the growing strength of fuel economy among compact and midsize competitors," Lacey Plache, chief economist of the automotive information website Edmunds.com, said in a Polk release.
But starting in April, when the Prius c arrived in force and the impact of higher fuel prices seemed to really hit home, the market for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles began to perk up.
In the first three months of 2012, U.S. sales of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EVs shot up 44 per cent from the year-ago quarter, to 113,457. Automotive News reports that March sales of those vehicles were double those of January, noting "it was a breakout quarter for sales of vehicles with alternative powertrains" though hybrids "accounted for the bulk of alternative powertrain sales — 106,207, compared with 7,250 EVs and plug-in hybrids."
In Canada, Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants says that it's tough to accurately track sales of hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles (diesel, biodiesel, natural gas, propane, E-85, hydrogen, methanol, butanol, compressed air or solar powered vehicles), but the Power Information Network reports that hybrids accounted for just .79 per cent of dealer transactions in 2011. So last year hybrid sales amounted to slightly more than nothing.
Now, though, we might be witnessing a sea change how mainstream consumers see alternative fuel vehicles. A new survey from Consumer Reports in the United States says nearly three-quarters of drivers would consider an alternative fuel vehicle for their next car.
Ever-rising fuel prices seem to be having an impact: 37 per cent of those surveyed said fuel economy is now the leading consideration when shopping for a new car. A distant second was quality (17 percent) followed by safety (16 percent), value (14 percent) and performance (6 percent).
Two-thirds of those surveyed expect their next vehicle to get better fuel economy. "While gasoline costs (90 per cent) were the number one reason cited for wanting a more fuel-efficient vehicle, more than half of respondents also had other reasons, including a desire to be more environmentally friendly (62 per cent) and concern about dependence on foreign oil (56 per cent)," said CR.
Takeshi Uchiyamada must see all this as vindication for his hard work and commitment to hybrids. As Automotive News noted in a recent profile, Uchiyamada "created the Prius hybrid franchise" and more recently "revamped the company's manufacturing and product-development processes during the financial, recall and natural disaster crises of the past four years."
Most notably, two decades ago he was the chief engineer who championed the gasoline-electric drive train. Today the Prius is the best-selling hybrid in the world and in Japan it's the best-selling car. With the launch of the Prius c and Prius v (large hatchback) soon to be followed by the plug-in electric Prius, a whole family of Prius-branded hybrids is now the Toyota way.
"Uchiyamada may have revolutionized the auto industry, starting the Prius line and making hybrids a natural part of the automotive landscape," says Jeffrey Liker in Automotive News. Liker is a university professor who has written extensively about Toyota.
Newly promoted to vice-chairman, a largely advisory role, Uchiyamada led the team of engineers responsible for creating Toyota's hybrid technology – technology apparently poised to go fully mainstream after struggling to gain traction for nearly 15 years. More than a few critics are surprised, even shocked and dismayed by this.
It seems in the auto industry, though, dreams can come true.