Can a hybrid vehicle really shine when there’s a plug-in sibling hogging both the spotlight and the technological podium? For some automakers new to the game, time will tell. But at Toyota, which first made “hybrid” a household word, it seems the introduction of a new Prius variant has tentatively confirmed doubts about the viability of the stock Prius.
We’ll gain better perspective as 2017 plays out, but so far, it’s looking like the Prius Prime plug-in is doing well, and the Prius is maintaining the status quo. Which is to say, it’s not doing well.
The Prius Prime, first sold in the U.S. in November, adopts distinctive styling that sets it apart from its sibling, as well as a 8.8 kWh battery that provides 25 miles of all-electric driving range. Toyota unloaded 1,362 units in February and 1,366 in January, making the Prius Prime the second-best-selling plug-in (electric or hybrid) in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if these numbers take off come spring.
Toyota seems pretty pleased with its sales so far. California dealers are even asking for more Prius Prime volume, said Bill Fay, Toyota’s group vice president, in a recent interview with Wards Auto.
As for the Prius, its 2017 sales are significantly below the same period last year. The automaker soldÂ 4,553 units in January andÂ 5,418 in February. That’s well below the 6,102 and 7,169 seen in the same months in 2016, which saw an annual sales tally ofÂ 98,866 unitsÂ â€” the lowest since 2004 and the end point of a marked decline that began after 2012.
The Prius faces the same problem faced by other conventional hybrid passenger cars, Basically, waning consumer interest in both the bodystyle and in an expensive technology that doesn’t offer an all-electric driving mode. These days, any new hybrid worth building had best be followed up with a plug-in variant. TakeÂ Hyundai’s Ioniq, for example, or Kia’s Niro.
Still, the introduction of a new Prius (for 2016) didn’t translate into renewed sales, and the downward trend shows no sign of ending. Even before the Prius Prime debuted, some at Toyota wondered if future improvements to the Prius would be worth it.
“Ultimately, PHEV may be the way to go,â€� said Shoichi Kaneko, assistant chief engineer for the Prius Prime, back in September.
The automaker certainly doesn’t seem to know what the future holds for the Prius. Fay pondered that a crossover-style Prius-badged vehicle could appeal to buyers, but wouldn’t make a promise. However, he stills hold out hope for a reversal of the Prius’ fortunes.
Toyota is “optimistic the consumer will find their way back” to the regular Prius, he said.[Image: Toyota Motor Corporation]