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Prius-c looks to expand hybrid love

Hybrid sales are steadily increasing.

Hybrid sales are steadily increasing. But it’s been a tough slog, like the road under them has been curiously strewn with chicken fat, or some other equally slippery substance.

Hybrids still seem only to attract those “early adopters” of technology. Mainstream buyers still stay away in droves.

Will mainstream buyers ever make the shift?

I put that question to Jim Lentz, president of Toyota’s U.S. sales division, just after he had the honours of unveiling the automaker’s newest hybrid — Prius-c — at the recent auto show in Detroit.

Lentz felt some mainstream buyers have already made the shift, by virtue of their acceptance of the hybrid versions of Camry and Highlander. He admitted, however, that mainstream hybrid buyers have yet to show up “in abundance.”

“But I think by the middle of this decade, it will become a mainstream technology,” said Lentz.

Earlier, he had outlined how the company plans to grow its hybrid business: by getting more hybrids into the hands of early adopters of every stripe, and letting this increasingly larger group prove the righteousness of the technology (not his words exactly).

Then, these early adopters become advocates of the hybrid cause and help it reach broader appeal.

Well that’s one way of looking at it. The other is that mainstream buyers have had lots of chances to take long, hard looks at hybrid technology and said “no thanks.”

Lentz acknowledges that mainstream buyers are partially focused on fuel prices. If they go up, they should turn to hybrids. If they don’t, they might not.

For that reason, he wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what percentage of Toyota sales might be hybrids and/or other alternative technology in the next few years.

“The price of fuel is such an extreme driver of that,” noted Lentz.

“Once hybrids are accepted throughout the mainstream, beyond the fluctuation of price, it will be easier to gauge that percentage.”

But the hybrid plot certainly thickened with the introduction of this new Prius-c (the “c” is for city).

The newest member of the Prius family looks like a great, little hatch, even before you consider its billing as the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can buy without a plug. Toyota Canada says its combined city/highway rating is 3.7 L/100 km (53 mpg).

Also expect a starting MSRP below $21,000. Its desired audience is young, urban buyers previously priced out of the hybrid market. Lentz called it a “gateway” vehicle for hybrid technology.

“It’s a key component to the overall Prius strategy, by adding substantial incremental sales, and more importantly getting advocates to the Prius family and to the broad acceptance of hybrids.”

 
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