2017 Has Been The Year Of The Toyota Prius’ Decline

After 17 years of rising to utterly dominate the U.S. “green car” landscape, the Toyota Prius Liftback has hit a plateau and may actually finish 2017 as a second-best seller.

An unthinkable prospect before this year, just one year ago, the car that’s come to symbolize the word “hybrid” still enjoyed two-and-a-half times the sales of the next-nearest hybrid out of around three dozen models available.

Indeed, two years ago at this time it had even higher sales, has seen “mainstream” volume of up to 147,000 sales in one year, and often during this decade enjoyed 3-4 times the next-best seller’s monthly numbers. What’s more, the “next-best” seller was often another Prius variant but those are down too, and despite being all-new, the Prius Liftback’s sales have been pestered by a car without near Prius-level fuel economy.

That would be the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which began the year selling 4,856 units to the Prius’ 4,553 – a first ever that Prius sales have been surpassed by any other electrified car.

Sales by the months: January: Ford: 4,856 / Toyota: 4,553; February: Toyota 5,418 / Ford: 4,939; March: Ford: 5,865 / Toyota: 5,798; April: Toyota: 5,802 / Ford: 4,509; May: Toyota: 6,064 / Ford: 5,671; June: Ford: 5,697 / Toyota: 5,476 … The Prius has 33,112 sales through June 2017. Compare to Prius sales June 2016: 48,475; June 2015: 54,173; June 2014: 63,037; June 2013: 76,809; June 2012: 83,661; June 2011: 66,520; June 2010: 66,039.

And since then, it’s happened three more times out of six, as the two cars have been nearly neck and neck, and this really does signal a turning of the table.

A year ago at this time the Ford had but one-quarter the sales, but through June its 31,537 sales compare close enough to the Prius’ 33,112 that it’s a tossup whether the Prius will finish 2017 ahead.

This story therefore could also be about the Ford’s rise, and to be sure the 42-mpg car is defying the odds as a midpack offering in a dwindling category packed with competition – midsized sedans. It does so by hitting a sweet spot of style and price, but the arguably bigger story is the decline of Toyota’s lead.

That’s the case despite Toyota’s just having redesigned the 52-56 mpg Prius last year to handle better, while making it slightly roomier, and with advanced safety tech standard.

The Prius c has the same powertrain it was introduced with in 2012.

As noted, the brand’s Prius c and Prius v sales have also fallen behind those of other hybrids, as has the Camry Hybrid which will probably go back up with a new redesign just released, and in all, Toyota’s U.S. sales are markedly down.

“Toyota used to routinely have 75 percent of the hybrid market,” said automotive analyst Alan Baum, “now it is just over 50 percent with Hyundai and Kia grabbing share with the Ioniq and Niro” he added speaking of fuel-efficient new entries from Hyundai and Kia respectively.

‘800 Pound Gorilla’ No More?

Do a keyword search for Prius and our subtitle’s cliché, and you’ll see it has been called an “800 pound gorilla,” and not without reason. The Prius has actually carried an outsized share of the entire U.S. hybrid car market, and so when the Prius suffers, all sigh with it.

When asked, Toyota has repeatedly said gas prices have hurt the hybrid market, and this is documented, but there’s really an interplay of variables going on.

Stylistically Speaking

When first introduced September 2015 in Las Vegas, the fourth-generation Prius met with mixed reviews from armchair critics. On paper, it’s the best Prius ever, and out-Priuses every Prius that came before.

In Japan, the car is selling well, and they’re grooving on the creases and folds that make up the car that has inspired Toyota to swell with pride, and once give serious thought to breaking it off as its own sub-brand.

SEE ALSO: 2016 Prius Designer Owes Inspiration to Lady Gaga

The four-model Prius line is actually a de facto sub-brand, and the Liftback still has a raft of loyal fans who love it, but there are those who’ve migrated away as evidenced by sales that are the lowest ebb in the car’s history, and with half the year behind it, this is not a fluke.

Mind-Share Spoken For

While analysts and journalists speak of the declined hybrid market as a subset of the green car market, and plug-in sales being up – while true on one hand – on another the total market share for electrified vehicles has hovered around 3-4 percent or so.

What appears to be happening is migration away from hybrids as they’re no longer seen as the pinnacle of petroleum savings or emissions reduction. This crown now belongs to plug-in electrified vehicles. So, as hybrid sales have gone down, plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, have gone up.

Cars from Tesla, as well as the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and all the other plug-in electrified vehicles have not yet beaten the Prius in sales, but the number of plug-in vehicles and their percentage of the U.S. market have risen since their effective dawn this decade.

The best-selling plug-in, the Model S, had an estimated 11,100 sales through June this year, and this was followed by the Chevy Volt’s 10,932. The collective take rate for plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles is 1.04 percent, compared to the hybrids’ 2.12 percent.

In terms of vehicles available, a bunch of plug-in cars may pejoratively be called compliance cars, and are limited availability, but as plug-in proponents are quick to observe, the number of models on offer about matches the number of hybrids.

Toyota’s Vision

Some progressively minded buyers and admirers of alternative energy have also been dismayed by Toyota’s stance on plug-ins, and if the brand was once seen as leading the way, it’s been said there’s doubt it has somewhat lost its way.

Toyota in 2012 dismissed EVs as costing too much, taking too long to charge, having too little range, and the “father of the Prius” said as much when Toyota cancelled a small city EV it was working on. It’s meanwhile turned around and thrown its green car clout, which is diminishing in the eyes of some, into a “Hydrogen Future,” and the new Prius is styled like its exclusive cousin, the Mirai Fuel Cell Vehicle.

SEE ALSO: Is Toyota’s No-EV Vision Brilliant Or Missing The Boat?

In contrast, Tesla has risen to be the star of the electrified car world, and the most ardent among plug-in car fans disparage the notion that a hybrid like the Prius should even be classified as “alternative” at all, because it relies mostly on gasoline.

Bear in mind, eight years ago, the electrified Prius was the quintessential “alternative energy” car, but today it’s being denied that definition by some.

This said, Toyota has somewhat tempered its anti-EV stance, and while still at work on a fuel cell future, this year it also said it’s working on EVs, and Akio Toyoda himself has taken charge of a small effort to build electric cars.

The anti-EV impression however for some has already been made, and even still it appears to be slowly moving to EVs with reluctance, as Toyoda said they’re doing it, but the effort will be expensive and EVs are boring.

Such statements continue to do nothing to endear EV supporters.

Prius Prime

Some have observed the new Prius “Prime” plug-in hybrid – now with 25 miles EV range, 54 mpg in hybrid mode, and priced midway in the Prius range before incentives – is possibly cannibalizing sales from the regular hybrid upon which it’s based.

It may be, and it’s the second-best selling plug-in hybrid in the U.S. with 9,692 deliveries through June, but even if all of these sales had gone to the Liftback, it would still hold a lead relatively lower than it has in the past.

That is, if the Prime did not exist, and every buyer who bought one this year chose instead a Liftback, it would have 42,804 hypothetical sales to the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s actual 31,537. That’s a nice lead, but a far cry from 2-4 times the sales it typically enjoyed most of this decade.

Other Models

Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid is the third-best seller, with 20,770 sales, and other models are on the way, though – like the Prime – don’t have monumental volume, but may have had an erosive effect on the Prius’ ultimate luster.

These include the Kia Niro Hybrid, with 12,676, and Honda Accord Hybrid, with 10,983. A couple others are in the 8,000s, one is in the 7,000s, but again, it is clear the Prius Liftback is well down.

Impact Made

While the winds have shifted, the Prius has played an invaluable role in where the alternative energy car market is today. Its hybrid architecture has found its way into almost three dozen Toyota and Lexus variants, not all of which are sold in the U.S.

Toyota has sold over 10 million hybrids since the Japanese-market Prius was introduced in 1997, and Toyota has laid claim to more fuel savings than any other maker of electrified vehicles.

The Prius also popularized the notion of electrified green cars and has led to the evolution of plug-in electrified vehicles – many of which have been purchased by those who once owned or admired a Prius.

Nor is it all over. The Prius yet outsells the next-closest plug-in cars by triple the volume, though its lead is much diminished. Last year it sold almost 99,000 units, but it’s not on track to do nearly this many in 2017, and is well down from 2012 and 2013 when it sold in the middle 140,000s – a good 115,000 better than the best plug-ins have yet mustered.

So, it is what it is. Things are changing, and they have been for the past few years as plug-ins get most of the ink, and keep improving.

Meanwhile, hybrids carry on and are improving too as the Prius Liftback soldiers on as still the best-selling electrified car, but by not even close to as much as it had until this year.


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