Whatever happened to the Toyota Prius?

Eighteen years ago it was stylish beyond belief, the car that was going to lead us out of the Age of the Internal Combustion Engine and into a green future.

Today the Prius has become somewhat dowdy, a tree-huggers’ car that’s trying to boast great gas mileage at a time when gasoline is about $2.30 a gallon.

“The Prius look is dated and a bit quirky,” Akshay Anand, an analyst Kelley Blue Book, told The New York Times. “The Prius has enormous brand equity, but it needs to be more than just a high-mileage vehicle.”

The collapse of oil prices has not been kind to gas-electric hybrids. Their 50-miles-per-gallon performance, which once doubled that of most models, is now being challenged by standard cars that get 40 mpg without electricity. Hybrids “have gone mainstream,” writes Alex Davies of Wired. “They’re no longer radical, or even all that different.”

As a result, Prius sales have suffered. In 2006 Toyota sold 150,000 of them, and the company overtook General Motors as the largest auto maker in the world. Now that honor goes to Volkswagen, which has a wider variety of hybrids and other fuel-sipping models. Sales of the Prius were down 16.8 percent during the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Although brand loyalty is still significant, there doesn’t seem to be much headroom for future improvement.

But that may be about to change. Last week on the roof of the Linq Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Toyota roustabouts hoisted a 2016 model 60 feet in the air in front of a crowd of journalists and auto analysts in order to launch a sexy new version of the Prius designed to attract a new generation of followers.

The four-door sedan has a stylish look that has no hint of fuel economy about it. Davies wrote in Wired: “The edgy (and, really, this car is nothing but edges) new look is an effort to stand out again, to reinvigorate sales of a model that has seen its popularity slip in a market that doesn’t place as great a premium on fuel economy.”

Toyota officials believe they have turned a corner. “Now we have a car that’s not just for mom and dad, tree-huggers and people on a budget,” said David Rodgers, vice president of two Toyota dealerships in Northern California. “This is what America’s been waiting for – a hybrid car with edge. It’s something the kids will want to drive.”

The fuel efficiency is still there. Toyota says the model will get 55 miles per gallon, and it still has the best co-efficient of drag in the industry. But with so much competition from similar brands, the company is going to have to rely on other factors as well.

If the early returns from journalists are any indication, Toyota may succeed. “Though we haven’t yet seen a reasonably priced alternative to the Prius, there’s usually not a lot of crossover between hybrid people and electric vehicle people,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The Model 3 and the new Chevrolet Volt will be increased competition, but there are still Prius loyalists.”

The coming release of the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 and the rejuvenated Chevy Volt should give Toyota plenty of concern. A decade ago the Prius represented 52.4 percent of the alternative-vehicle market. Last year the figure had fallen to 33.5 percent.

Prius-tail2One of the biggest things working against the Prius had been, as one observer put it, “it is no fun behind the wheel.” Stylishness was deliberately prosaic because ownership was a statement of frugality. Now all this has changed. When the Prius arrives in showrooms early next year, the improvements built into the car will “lift it from its mundane, efficiency-focused past and put it before the eyeballs of a wider audience of buyers,” wrote Mark Vaughn of Autoweek.

“Our biggest complaint about the previous Toyota Prius has been the driving experience, which is only slightly less exciting than reading a dictionary,” writes Aaron Gold in Consumer Reports. “We’re pleased to see the styling of the 2016 Toyota Prius has taken on more personality, and we like the idea of better fuel economy. The promise of more driver involvement is intriguing, but then again, Toyota’s definition of fun-to-drive doesn’t necessarily match ours. We’re optimistic, but to find out whether the new Prius will address our most serious complaints—too much noise and not enough fun—we’ll have to wait until we buy one for a full road test.”

Finally, Steve Siler of Car and Driver says: “… the styling evokes the futuristic hot mess that is the hydrogen-powered Mirai, although it’s not nearly as hideous. Say what you will about the overall design, but those taillights are pretty amazing. Welcome back, tailfins!”

Most important, the Prius revival may extend well beyond Toyota’s fortunes. As analyst Jeremy Acevedo put it: “With the aged outgoing model and low gas prices dragging down sales, the 2016 Prius will be a much-needed shot in the arm for not only Toyota, but the entire green car segment.”

Related posts:

What caused EV sales to go off a cliff in July?

The hydrogen car finally takes shape

Tesla approaches a moment of truth

U.S. is trailing the rest of the world on EVs



Cities emerge as incubators for electric cars

The realization is emerging that if electric cars are going to succeed in becoming part of the American fleet, it is probably going to happen in cities.
There are several reasons for this:

  • In-city trips are short and probably stay within the range of most electrical vehicles, if they don’t rise much above 50 to 75 miles.
  • Cities suffer more from air pollution and therefore have more to gain from the introduction of electric cars.
  • Cities have compact electric grids and are therefore better prepared to set up a network of charging stations.
  • Cities have large car dealerships and therefore are more likely to carry a wide variety of models to attract consumers.
  • Cities can offer benefits to EV owners such as access to high-occupancy and bus lanes without having to deal with state legislatures and their broader constituencies.

The International Council on Clean Transportation has issued an 80-page report on the progress that cities around the world have made in advancing electric cars for transportation. It says:

Cities could represent an important focal point in the transition toward a robust electric vehicle market due to urban driving patterns and cities concentration of vehicle ownership and charging networks. Although it is early in what is likely a decades-long transition, the current diversity of electric-drive promotion actions provides a rich laboratory for what it working.

The study surveyed 25 major cities in the United States, comprising more than 42 percent of the population, 46 percent of auto sales, 67 percent of new electric-vehicle registrations and 53 percent of the public charging stations in the country. Their findings were illustrated in the following chart:

EV graph_Tucker2
The vertical axis shows the percentage of cars that are now EVs, with San Francisco approaching 6 percent. The horizontal axis shows how much each city has done to promote EVs. The size of the dot shows how many chargers per million people are now available in the city.

California obviously leads with a $2,500 state tax credit for the purchase of a new EV. When combined with the $7,500 federal tax credit, this can reduce the price of a Nissan Leaf by nearly one-third. This is undoubtedly the reason why San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside rank so high. (Many of California’s smaller cities such as Sacramento and Palo Alto would also have very high ranking.)

But other cities have been active as well. Seattle has a mix of incentives, utility cooperation and charging infrastructure and has three times the U.S. average of EV registrations. Portland has the country’s most extensive charging network and extensive outreach and is also triple the national average. Atlanta has gotten into a relationship with Nissan and has become the biggest market for the Leaf in the country, with eight times the national average. The main advantage seems to be access to the HOV lanes on Atlanta’s network of freeways. The city has also just voted to buy a large number of electrics to replace gas-powered vehicles in the city’s municipal fleet.

The ICCT report lists 30 actions that states, utilities and cities can take, 14 of them at the city level. These include everything from outright subsidies for purchase to parking benefits, from access to bus lanes to utility help in setting up home-charging stations.

The California cities rank the highest, with San Francisco scoring 23 out of 30 incentives. But Washington, Philadelphia and New York ranked fairly high and have not been able to build up their electric fleets. The reason seems to be the drag in municipal bureaucracies in setting up chargers, plus concerns about theft and vandalism. Perhaps not surprisingly, Detroit ranked near the bottom. The home of the internal combustion engine has not been that receptive to electric vehicles. Tampa, Miami, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are the other laggards.

The ICCT recommends the “ecosystem” approach, where “a lot of actors are moving in the same direction.” State and federal governments are encouraged to provide funding incentives. Nonprofits are encouraged to do outreach and publicize the virtues of electric transportation. Utilities are to be recruited to co-promote EVs and offer incentives for their purchase. Small businesses are encouraged to install charging stations at workplaces. And automakers are encouraged to increase the availability of their models. The last seems particularly important, since outstanding EV models are not available in all areas. Atlanta’s success in promoting the Leaf seems to be an example of how cities can leverage arrangements with car dealerships.

The report concludes:

These cities on average saw a new electric vehicle share of 1.1% in 2014. Compared to a nationwide average electric vehicle share of 0.8%, the 25 cities in this study had an average electric vehicle deployment that was 40% greater, and many individual cities had deployment that was much greater than that. Based on these basic snapshots of 2014, electric vehicles are being deployed disproportionately in major cities, so it is an important moment to serve these cities with an up-to-date understanding of electric vehicle and charging infrastructure trends and best practices that are emerging.

Every city can’t be San Francisco but many can do much more.