The Web edition of the automobile enthusiast publication Autoweek recently posted a list of the 12 most searched cars on the site. The Ford Mustang isn’t much of a surprise in spot number one; likewise another horsepower powerhouse, Chevy’s Corvette in third place.
Sandwiched between those classic American pony cars? The Toyota Prius.
In the interest of full disclosure, editors at Autoweek.com, admit that the Prius doesn’t get their blood pumping. Yet, as auto enthusiasts covering the full spectrum of the four-wheeled-world, the site’s staffers can’t deny the staying power of Toyota’s market-leading hybrid car.
Without postulating why the Prius rated so high in a publication that values performance facets of cars as much as practicality and comfort, the editors simply let the search results chips fall.
“All assumptions aside, the numbers don’t lie,” wrote Sherrice Gilsbach of Autoweek.com.
Reading (electronic) tea leaves
What does the number two out of 12 position say about the Prius?
There’s no end to the number of ways we could extract meaning from AW’s search results, and what they say about the Web site’s readership, or those merely doing informational searches on the site. To say that the influences of creeping numbers at the pump and the ever-increasing acceptance of alternative-fuel vehicles also likely play roles in boosting the Prius’ profile aren’t stretches of probability.
If you’re the cynical type, weary of a something as simple as a tally of search results telling the greater story of the popularity of the Prius, you need look no further than sales data to see how it is that apparently so many people might hunt down info on the Prius nowadays.
Model-year 2013 marks a commendable 17 years of Prius production, with first sales starting in Japan in 1997. In April 2011 Toyota had sold its 1 millionth Prius in the U.S. since the car first went on sale here in 2000.
For a more current perspective, peeking at our November Dashboard sales totals for the hybrid market you can see that the Prius Liftback’s 8,925 sales is more than twice as many as the next best seller. And 2012 year-to-date Liftback sales of nearly 135,000 units is more than three times the next best selling hybrid in a market of more than 40 models.
First in line
In the U.S. the car has essentially reached cult status; it has transcended from a practical means of personal transportation to being an icon. The Prius has been synonymous with green car technology for most of the past decade and a half.
While not taking anything away from Toyota’s design and engineering prowess behind the Prius, a key factor in the car’s success is often lost in the boiling enthusiasm for the green car market: the Prius got here first.
Yes, we know Toyota didn’t pioneer the technology of hybrid powertrain vehicles; the premise of such a machine has existed for decades. But Toyota was the first mainline automaker in years to make the green car leap into an American auto market traditionally in love with displacement, eye-candy appeal, and a long-running ethos of bigger is better.
Not only did Toyota jump into a red-hot caldron spilling over with fuel-swilling Escalades and Expeditions, but it also stuck the landing, and hasn’t looked back since.
Being first to market with a product can pay immense dividends. A savvy company can leverage a product’s first-to-market status as a tremendously strong marketing and branding tool. If the product is viable and its image managed, a company can leave a positive indelible mark on the market that may reap rewards for years to come.
If you’re a hybrid car enthusiast old enough to remember, think back to a time before you were so enthusiastic. Think also of those friends, family, and casual acquaintances that even now only have cursory knowledge of green cars. When the term “hybrid car” first crosses eardrums, what comes to mind? Probably an image of a Prius.
As a brand the Prius is so well managed that it allowed Toyota to grow the Prius line. Now consumers can pick from among three hybrids: the Prius Liftback, Prius c, Prius v, and a plug-in hybrid, called simply enough, the Prius Plug-in.
Toyota has capitalized on its reputation of building reliable, user-friendly vehicles, and parlayed that cache of credit with consumers – as well as the Prius’ ability to do what Toyota implied the car could do (use less fuel, lower emissions, and save customers money) – into an image for the Prius that goes beyond Toyota.
“Prius is a Prius first and a Toyota second,” said Toyota’s Group Vice President of Global Sales, Bob Carter, when the Prius family of cars became a top-three seller earlier this year.
Not universally loved, but loved by a loyal following
The car was, and still is, often derided for being a treehugger’s car of choice. Yet, despite no major departures in the car’s core styling theme that gives diehard auto enthusiasts the willies, the Prius has moved beyond being an automobile.
It’s hard to argue against the notion that for a portion of Prius owners the car is as much a badge of honor, an affirmation of lifestyle, or a 3,000-pound representation of ideologies, as it is a way to get from A to B.
In 2007 the <em>New York Times</em> cited a marketing survey that saw 57 percent of respondents say they purchased a Prius because it made a declaration about them as a person, while far fewer (36 percent) purchased the car for its fuel economy.
However, like people and their ideals the king of hybrids isn’t infallible. The Prius has seen its share of safety recalls and negative press.
In November of this year Toyota issued a recall for certain 2004 to 2009 model-year Prius vehicles in the U.S. to inspect and in some cases replace the steering intermediate extension shaft. A total of 670,000 Prius were subject to the recall. In 2010 a similar number of cars were recalled for a coolant pump glitch, and the Prius was also caught up in the floor mat public relations nightmare in 2009.
More recently the Prius c was dubbed by Consumer Reports as a car to avoid.
The consumer watchdog publication reported that the c model it evaluated provided fuel economy figures far below the car’s EPA-rated 53 mpg city rating; the magazine also opined the c had poor ride quality and a chintzy interior. And just last week the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rated the Prius v “poor” for its performance in the Institute’s new small overlap frontal crash test.
By and large, however, the Prius family of cars is generally regarded as a safe, economical, and reliable choice of vehicles.
Quietly storming the gates of automobile conventionalism
While the alternative-fuel powertrain vehicle market is currently but a sliver of the larger automobile scene, it is trending upward. Yet it’s virtually impossible to surmise the future of the green car merely by how many people visiting <em>Autoweek.com’s</em> searched for the Prius over the period of one year.
One the other hand, with the Prius surpassing the Corvette, not to mention the many other fuel-efficient, economical cars like the Ford Focus and Kia Optima that faired well in the AW.com top 12 searched list, you have to wonder if practicality is storming the gates of power and passion that for so long have underpinned the often emotional act of purchasing a car.
Had Toyota not so effectively implemented its Prius program, chances are that another manufacturer would’ve stepped in and had cracking success with some form of alternative-fuel vehicle.
Commercially successful green technology cars, like the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Tesla Model S, or Fisker Karma, stand fully on their own merits, and appeared in their own good time. But the path to success for these, and the dozens more alt-fuel vehicles now on the market, were made smoother and more accessible by the Prius’ early and continued success.
How long, then, before the Prius and its contemporaries reach the top of everyone’s search list?