The 52-56 mpg Toyota Prius Liftback is the best it’s ever been, and it is suffering its worst sales year since 2004.

A car that has seen sales over 140,000 units in two years this decade has through the third quarter this year just 50,911 in the bag, and may finish the year at 70,000, according to analyst Alan Baum.

Last year it managed 98,863 sales, and meanwhile, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, a former upstart that used to never hold a candle to it, outsold it once again last month.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.

The Prius’ 5,722 sales in September actually put it in third place behind the Ford’s 6,326, and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid’s 5,759. Up until last year, it had never been anything but first place this decade by a margin as high as three-four times the sales of the next-nearest competitor.

Calendar year to date, the three top sellers have 50,911 (Prius), 44,677 (Fusion), and 36,352 (RAV4).

What Gives?

Technically, the new Prius is hard to fault. Built on Toyota’s New Global Architecture, it now handles much better than before, and raises the bar in all other meaningful measures.

The front-wheel drive five passenger midsized hatch is smooth, quiet, and sips gas such that drivers may get into the 60 mpg range with not too much extra care.

Prius and Fusion hybrids.

In short, it out-Priuses every Prius before it, but while it stands out relative to the former generation whose fuel economy it had to beat by as much as 10 percent, competition is also increasingly conspicuous to shoppers.

While it’s doing well in other markets, particularly in Japan, North American buyers have also noted they’re discouraged by the creases and lines the new techno-mod car presents.

Gasoline prices have caused a decline in hybrid sales but do not explain the Prius’ decline. In Sept. 2016, total hybrid vehicle market share was 2.19 percent, or 31,286 sales for 257,496 calendar year to date. This year, Sept. 2017 total hybrid sales are up at 2.46 percent, or 37,319 for 279,179 CYTD. That said, the Liftback is down 41.6 percent year over year, with 50,911 sales this year compared to 78,372 sales same time last year. The Prius used to carry the market when it was doing 120,000-140,000 annual sales. It’s now pulling it down, and the market is still up. Other hybrid vehicles are taking up the slack.

Couple this with cars like the Fusion, which is deemed particularly handsome, and the RAV4, which caters to the shift toward AWD crossovers, and the issues start to become clear.

And then there’s a couple dozen other hybrids, and plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars that present choices.

SEE ALSO: 2016 Prius Designer Owes Inspiration to Lady Gaga

In positioning the new Prius, Toyota said it was aiming at a more mainstream audience, which is a tacit admission it was no longer seen as the ultimate green machine next to pure EVs, and plug-in hybrids.

Indeed, its own Prime plug-in stablemate is cannibalizing some sales, and its 1,899 sales last month, and 15,056 for the year mean it’s having the best year since 2012 when the the plug-in Prius was introduced – just 292 sales less than the reigning champ Chevy Volt, which it may beat this year.

Prius Prime.

And even in the Liftback’s own arena, there are now apple-to-apple Prius challengers vying for peoples’ attention. These include the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, benchmarked on the Prius, and which offers a couple mpg better, and more moderate styling.

A plug-in version is also coming to tackle the Prime on its own turf, and Hyundai’s sister company, Kia, has its also popular Niro with up to 50 mpg.

Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.

Neither of these are selling in the same league, with the Ioniq at 1,101 last month, and 8,127 for the year, and Niro at 2,554 last month, and 20,670, but they took almost 30,000 sales that might have gone to the Prius.

The Prius happens also to be the latest update in what is really a family line. Toyota a few years back reportedly considered officially splitting the Prius into a sub-brand, and it did at least make “Prius” its own unofficial sub-brand.

Former top-four sellers – the Prius c and Prius v are now five-year-old designs and flagging along with the progenitor Liftback. Their sales have fallen back to 937 of the Prius c last month and 9,707 for the year, and 728 of the Prius v last month, and 7,647 for the year.

Kia Niro.

Just two years ago, the c was second-best seller, and in Sept. 2015 sold 3,367 adding to 29,649 for the year. The v that same month sold 2,575, and had accumulated 22,479 for the year.

Prius c.

So the whole Prius line, except the new Prime PHEV are in limp-home mode in the sales race this year.

“These are the lowest sales of the Prius Liftback since 2004,” Baum noted. “That is even true if you add the Prius Liftback, Prius C, and Prius V together.”

Moving Forward

The Prius Liftback is the world’s best selling electrified car and if it was sold at McDonalds, a sign could say “Millions and Millions Sold.”

A confluence of events have shifted for it, while it remains an extremely competent car that is more evolved than any other on the electrified market.

Its resale values and service records are good, and its reliability as a tool that does the job are still intact.

It’s just that the market is looking in other directions, and sure enough, there are viable alternatives to see.