Toyota’s Prius arguably is one of the most notable, and most recognized hybrids in the marketplace today. It’s seen as a symbol of an emerging trend here in the U.S. that embraces environmental responsibility and stewardship. In its draft, the Toyota brand has built a green, eco-friendly image that has often mitigated criticism of the company’s other pickups and SUVs with considerably poorer gas mileage.
A decade from now, though, I predict the Prius will be less known for its short-term contribution to the Toyota brand or CO2 reduction, and better known for galvanizing hybrid technology in the U.S. marketplace, catalyzing the introduction of dozens of other hybrid vehicles by nearly every car company selling here.
With roughly 21 hybrid models in showrooms right now, and other 20-plus models planned for production in the next four years, its legacy will have far more impact than any one vehicle with a 50-mpg rating.
A Changing Market, But Hybrid Sales Still Low
Some forget that the Prius wasn’t the first hybrid vehicle in the U.S. market. Honda’s Insight was the first to debut here in 1999, with the Prius following a year later. But Toyota’s hybrid proved to be the perfect combination: styling unique enough to set it apart as a new type of vehicle, but close enough to a typical compact 4-door to make it far more practical and usable versus the 2-seater Insight.
That combination of design and functionality allowed the Prius to become a moral statement for some in the face of global warming’s increasing celebrity. For others, it was an opportunity to hedge against the cost of vehicle ownership – an experiment in thrift against the rising tide of oil and gasoline prices.
Now hybrids are nearly ubiquitous – especially in green-leaning cities like Ann Arbor. Even those holdouts that insisted hybrids were likely a fad are rolling out hybrid powertrains that offer modest to major fuel economy ratings.
Sadly, hybrid sales still represent just 2% of total vehicles sold so far this year: approximately 240,00 were sold through October 2009 (Prius represented almost half, at 118,290) versus 8.6 million total vehicle units in the same time period. By comparison, Ford Motor Co. sold 334,922 F-150 pickup trucks alone in the same time period.
But between 2010 and 2013, there could be another 20-plus models released by manufacturers in a broad range of categories and price ranges. With more models to choose from, the sales numbers may improve as the economy’s pall lifts and people, once again, are willing to pay a premium for environmental advocacy.
And while the free market dictates that, one day, Prius will lose its diminutive crown as king of the hybrids to a competitor, all that come after it will have to recognize that the Prius sits at the trunk of this genealogy tree and pay homage to Toyota’s combination of product genius and uncanny market timing.
The Coming Lineup
Beginning in 2010 and looking forward, here are a few hybrid highlights to watch:
- Honda. Although Insight and Civic hybrid sales are only a fraction of the Toyota Prius sales, the Honda brand, year in year out, has stood more for innovation and creativity than volume (except for the Accord, of course). And so the Honda Fit Hybrid is next on the company slate, expected to debut late next year. Rumors have its mpg rating posted in the high sixties – a remarkable achievement but not entirely unexpected given the Fit’s size.
- BMW X6 and 7 Series. BMW calls their hybrid powertrain “ActiveHybrid” in an effort to differentiate between the thrifty but sluggish performance of hybrids like the Prius and Insight, and the main focus of BMW’s brand – the driving experience. Nonetheless, the ActiveHybrid is expected to provide 20% better fuel economy than comparable performance internal combustion engines, giving BMW owners an eco-option without compromising driving performance. The X6 is being rolled out now, and the 7-series will debut next spring.
- Porsche Cayenne/VW Touareg. If you’re not sure how to pronounce these two SUVs, you’re not alone. I’m not even sure the spelling is correct. But the Porsche and VW hybrid versions of these SUVs will debut in 2010 and 2011, respectively. While the individual marques go out of their way to differentiate the two models, they share much of the same underpinnings. In a spate of Teutonic SUV offerings due next year, German manufacturers are beginning to play catch up to Japanese and American OEMs who have had hybrids out in this category for some time.
- Audi Q5 Hybrid. Not to be left behind, Audi reportedly will launch a hybrid version of its Q5 SUV. The announcement comes as a surprise to hybridophiles who expected Audi’s first hybrid to be their bigger Q7. The dilemma could stem from the fact that Audi, like most German manufacturers, also is pushing diesel powertrains in some of its models (also offering great fuel economy performance, by the way) and offering a Q7 in both diesel and hybrid versions is likely to make heads spin at the dealership.
- Mercedes ML Hybrid. That didn’t stop Mercedes Benz from offering its ML-class SUV in three versions: gas (petrol for the euro crowd), diesel or hybrid. The gasoline engine gets 15 mpg, the diesel 18 mpg and the hybrid 21 mpg. How’s that for progress? The ML is on sale now.
- Hyundai Sonata. It was a great year for Hyundai, despite the recession, as buyers looked for cars with good value but lower stickers. The company’s first hybrid, the Sonata, will test Hyundai’s value/price formula since it will undoubtedly sell for more than the gasoline version. It remains to be seen if the translation can be made from a Toyota hybrid to a Hyundai with the same conquest rate as traditional gasoline engines.
- Buick Crossover Hybrid. As GM continues to massage its Buick brand, a hybrid is expected to debut in 2011, likely in the form of a crossover or small sport-utility vehicle. GM had slated the Saturn Vue to be its hybrid candidate in this class, but the brand didn’t make the bankruptcy cut. Some reports have this vehicle pegged to hit as much as 70 mpg if it is fitted with some of the same technology and powertrain configuration as the Chevrolet Volt.
- Superclass. If you’re looking to execute conspicuous consumption and then throw environmental superiority on top of it, in a couple of years, your options will grow substantially. Porsche is expected to launch a hybrid version of its new luxury 4-door sedan, the Panamera. Infiniti has a hybrid version of its M sports sedan reportedly in the works, and a new company, Fisker, will produce a plug-in hybrid sedan called the Karma coming in at around $90,000. These models might be a bridge too far for some tree huggers, but now even the rich Sneetches can have environmental stars on their bellies.
Some Final Thoughts
Many of these vehicles still are based on the same hybrid powertrain concepts pioneered by the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. On the horizon: the plug in hybrid (PHEV), offering more range on electric power and thus even lower fuel consumption.
Still, there is some controversy about hybrids: whether or not they get the fuel economy they report in real commuter driving cycles, whether or not owners really recoup the premium they pay for a hybrid over the life of a vehicle.
But with so many hybrids coming into the market, consumers appear to be telling focus groups that they just don’t care. That means hybrids have likely graduated from a fad borne in bad economic times and environmental handwringing into a long-term option for carbuyers. So years from now, you may get to tell those bored grandkids (from the back seat of their hovercraft) about the Toyota Prius, the car that started it all.