Column: On the Road

Changing what’s under the hood: the Prius legacy
Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

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.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.


  1. By Ed Fenton
    December 13, 2009 at 4:35 am | permalink

    I would not buy a forgein car if it got 100 mpg,
    Support the country you live in
    or live in the country you support.

    Wake up America

    December 13, 2009 at 11:09 am | permalink

    Define a “foreign car”.

    * One that is not built in the USA by US labor and with US parts? (many if not most Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans, etc. are built in the USA; many GM cars are built in Canada and Mexico)

    * One whose executives are headquartered outside the USA? (do we really care where the fat cats live?)

    * Both Ford and GM have substantial overseas operations – do they count? Chrysler is owned by an Italian company, does it count?

    In today’s global economy, there is no longer a simple classification of “foreign” and “domestic”. This was the attitude we had as a culture during the 1970′s, and a whole lot of good it has done the auto industry since then!

    Buying a 100 mpg car of any make would be a highly patriotic act — anything we can do to wean ourselves from dependence on the oil which comes from the volatile regions of the world would save many American lives and much money. It is an investment in our grandkids’ future.

  3. December 13, 2009 at 11:41 am | permalink

    Ed, I have to say that I agree with Fridgeman. The concept of a domestic automobile is far less clear than it was two or three decades ago. Japanese, Korean and German automakers all have manufacturing operations, R&D facilities and regional corporate headquarters throughout the U.S. and I very much doubt the hundred-thousand-plus employees working there would see things your way.

    But of course this is just a tangent to the point of the article. The Prius has inspired a number of OEMs to follow down the hybrid path. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy one. In fact there are a number of hybrids available now that probably fit your definition of a “domestic”. So you have the opportunity to double down on your patriotic commitment; purchase a vehicle with a badge that has American heritage and reduce our dependency on foreign oil at the same time.

  4. By m
    December 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm | permalink

    It seems odd to write about the Prius without mentioning the recent issues of sudden acceleration in a variety of Toyoa models and the company’s unwillingness to acknowledge anything but floor mats as a potential cause. See “Toyota’s acceleration issue” an editorial on Dec. 5 in the LA Times for a summary of this issue. This editorial states “the number of complaints involving Toyotas and Lexuses — still low compared with total sales — grew significantly after the company introduced the drive-by-wire technology. That justifies more scrutiny.”

    Location of the editorial: [Link]

  5. By Ken Olson
    December 13, 2009 at 6:54 pm | permalink

    I bought a Prius about 18 months ago. During the life of the car, if I break even on total spend (expensive car but less on gas) then I will be quite happy. A large portion of my dollars would have gone to an innovative car company (Toyota in Japan) rather than to oil exporting countries, many of which are not that friendly to the US.

  6. December 13, 2009 at 8:59 pm | permalink

    M, I don’t believe the recall was specific to the Prius, so the intrinsic value of that information probably isn’t applicable to a story about the Prius itself. Having said that, the field of warranty issues on batteries and other systems unique to hybrids is a story yet to be told. And consumers certainly should be aware that these technologies are not foolproof. So malfunctions specific to these emerging powertrains are perhaps an inevitable footnote to the story…some time in the future.

  7. December 14, 2009 at 7:59 am | permalink

    Ken, your comment opens up a larger point, from hybrid cars to solar arrays. Often times, the up-front investment is high and can be a significant deterrent. But over time, that additional cost is really a reallocation of resources – moving those dollars from the same old energy equation to companies who have new, emerging technologies. As more people, like yourself, make the investment, that equation will shift.

  8. December 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm | permalink

    We own a 04, 70mph, AC on, 4 people (one 6’3″ in the back), full of camping gear, 50mpg all day long. We have lots of Prius Yellow Cabs in AA because of mpg and roomy design.

    Consumers Reports states 5 year payback at $2.50 gal.

    Today Toyota officially launched its Prius Plug-in Hybrid for lease in 2010 and retail sales in 2011; 14.5 miles before needing the engine, 134mpg., at an “affordable price”.

    This is just the start, they say all their cars will have hybrid technology in the next few years.

    Bob Lutz a top exec. at GM called the Prius a “Joke”, I think he has changed his mind since then.

    Thank god thinks are finally moving forward and not back like Jimmy Carter tried to do 30+ years ago.

  9. By Ed Fenton
    December 25, 2009 at 6:24 am | permalink

    Buy American – Keep your money over here not the red army

    December 28, 2009 at 8:21 pm | permalink


    That’s easy to say, but what do you really mean?

    Do you mean buy a car which is assembled by American workers? Do you mean a car which is made entirely from US parts? Are you including Canada as part of the US?

    I generally enjoy the informed debates in the Chronicle comments; I’d like to understand the point you’re trying to make.

  11. By Ed Fenton
    January 2, 2010 at 5:50 am | permalink

    The point is Buy American, Cant you understand! or should you move to china?

  12. By Rod Johnson
    January 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm | permalink

    I notice you didn’t answer his questions, Ed. Can you?

  13. By Ed Fenton
    January 3, 2010 at 5:53 am | permalink

    If he dosn’t know the answer to all those questions then he needs to take another look at his patriotic life and maybe do something about it.

  14. By jcp2
    January 3, 2010 at 9:11 am | permalink

    I think Ed means buy from car companies that use UAW labor.

  15. By Rod Johnson
    January 3, 2010 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    I think Ed only thinks he knows what he means.

  16. By jcp2
    January 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm | permalink


    January 6, 2010 at 2:16 pm | permalink

    Maybe I shouldn’t bother once again trying to elevate the discussion here, but as evidence that this is not a simple issue, you can read how the US government attempts to define a “domestic product” for the purposes of the Buy American act, which requires US government agencies to preferentially purchase “domestic” products. [Link]

    With patience (and a magnifying glass), you can find some fairly interesting items in this document.

    In Section 25.001(c), it says “… The Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a “domestic end product” (manufacture in the United States and a formula based on cost of domestic components). Under the trade agreements, the test to determine country of origin is “substantial transformation” (i.e., transforming an article into a new and different article of commerce, with a name, character, or use distinct from the original article). ”

    I would imagine that with this test, a Nissan manufactured in Alabama by American workers from mostly American parts would be considered a domestic product.

    The “exclusions” list towards the bottom is really quite intriguing. For example, why are canned grapefruit sections excluded?!?

  18. By jcp2
    January 6, 2010 at 4:32 pm | permalink

    The Buy American Act applies only to supplies and construction materials. Canned grapefruit sections (and all the other items on the exclusion list) are excluded because the domestic supply of such is less than 50% of the combined U.S. government and nongovernmental demand. I imagine that the cannery is offshore, as U.S. processed grapefruit production is largely frozen juice concentrate. There have been some U.S. Government Department of Fish and Wildlife owned Priuses spotted out west.

    Regardless, when it comes to cars and Michigan, buy American means buy traditional Ford, Chrysler, or GM nameplates sold in the United States. Foreign brands with an ownership interest by these companies don’t count (Volvo, Saab). Cars built by UAW labor don’t necessarily count (Toyota Matrix, Mazda 6). Cars with American nameplates not available in America don’t count (Chevrolet Forester in India, Subaru Forester here; Dodge Attitude in Mexico, Hyundai Accent here). Cars built by CAW workers in Canada count, as they are UAW cousins. Cars built by non-UAW labor may or may not count, depending on whether you support the UAW more than the companies (Aveo, Fusion). At least that’s what I think Ed means.

    January 6, 2010 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    I agree that is likely to be what he means. I’m trying to understand why that makes sense. It is not a real workable definition, and I still submit that while “Buy American” is easy to say, it really doesn’t have meaning.

    In a situation where it is pretty crystal clear, I buy local produce at every possible opportunity and eschew items which been shipped from Brazil, New Zealand, and all over the place. (Assuming we neglect the issue of whether the “American” produce has been harvested by legal farm workers!)