John Goreham's picture

Will the new 2015 Prius reverse sales crash?

Toyota is preparing a new Prius. Will it come in time to keep the Prius the world’s number one selling green car?

The Toyota Prius had a banner 2013, but the world’s best-selling green car is currently driving Thelma and Louise style towards a sales cliff. Both January and February were a terrible month for the high-volume hybrid line. For the year, sales of the Prius family are down about 30%. It is worse if you look more closely at some of the individual Prius models. However, all is not lost. The Prius is at the very end of its design cycle and a new one is soon to drive onto the stage. Here’s what’s wrong and how the new Prius might turn the tide.

50 MPG Is Not So Exciting Anymore
One problem that the Prius faces is that its classic 5 door sedan model “only” gets 50 MPG combined. There was a time when people were completely blown away by that number. Now, many models are approaching that, and any hybrid with a plug is simply way more efficient in terms of MPGe. Of course Toyota’s Prius Plug-in hybrid is still the leading seller in that class of car. The real problem coming for Toyota is that the all-electric Leaf comes with up to $12,500 of tax deductions in some states and that makes the Leaf about half the cost of the Prius. Leaf sales are still only about 1/10th the size of Prius family sales, but the writing is on the wall. 100 MPGe is the new 50 MPG, and Prius just does not have the shock and awe it once had. With no Prius EV even hinted at, Toyota is in danger here unless the next Prius Plug-in has some serious range, and a gas motor small enough to convince CARB it is not simply a hybrid.

There Are Many New Affordable Green Cars
The Honda Accord hybrid is one of the most amazing green cars in the US market. 47 MPG in a big-sedan package is very tempting. 50 MPH around town! Consider too that the prices of the Accord Hybrid and Prius are not miles apart. The loaded Prius costs more than the base Accord Hybrid. Ford copied the Prius line, and of course those models may look great to fans of the Ford brand in comparison to the Prius. The next Prius needs to leap ahead of the Ford C-max and C-Max energy, but can it?

Next Prius May be More Like Lexus CT 200h
One thing Toyota did hint at doing was to make the next Prius more interesting to drive and easier on the eyes. The Lexus CT 200h is a Prius drivetrain in a much more enjoyable vehicle. The CT 200h handles like an Audi A3 or BMW X1. It feels very sporty, with the exception of forward acceleration. We don’t expect acceleration to change much in the next Prius, but Toyota already can make the Prius the most engaging mainstream green car on Earth, should it so choose.

A friend of mine recently asked me “Why does that car look so stupid.” She meant the Prius we were passing on the highway like it was going backwards. I defended the Prius saying that it is "geek-chic" and the owners like driving a car that is clearly designed for maximum fuel efficiency. Then I realized that the time for that has come and gone. Toyota knows this, and the company chairman has promised a new style. Hopefully, the new look will be like a Mazda 3 for grownups. The Lexus CT 200h is already similar to that style, so we are hopeful it can be done with a good drag coefficient to keep MPG as high as possible.

Dark Interiors
I recently asked a group of Toyota insiders why the Prius is all of a sudden selling badly. One said that the interiors are now dated and too bright. People are back to the "black leather jacket" look and Prius is heavy on the Anne Taylor pants-suit with silver shades, beige, almond and similar light colors. That is easily fixed.

Fuel Prices Spike to $ 5.00 and Prius Sales Explode
That same dealership insider talks to a lot of Prius shoppers that take home Camrys. The truth is that at $3.50 per gallon 35 MPG is fine for many shoppers. However, if that fuel cost number were to spike, even temporarily, he says the Prius’ overall better value in the green car world will again put it on top, even with geeky looks, ho-hum green car mileage and the bright and shiny interiors. So really a good war-scare is all Prius really needs. Let’s hope this isn’t the way it goes.

Related Stories:
Toyota announces details of the amazing next generation Prius
Three reasons why the Toyota Prius outsells the entire electric car market

Story image is a 2014 Lexus CT 200h

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Current Priuis driver here. If the next generation doesn't get 60 mpg, I won't even consider it when it's time to buy. Lots of other options out there now including EV's.
I bet you're not alone. Toyota says they want 5% better mileage. That ain't gonna cut it.
Lexus 200h only looks good next to a Prius. I don't think it drives at all like an Audi or BMW. But that's just my opinion.
True about the looks. Your opinion carries a lot of weight. I might be off base about how it feels. Thanks for adding your experience with it.
A reader named Ken contacted me directly with this comment, which I thought was good, so I am pasting it here:::: I have a 2010 Prius. Would like to move up to Lexus version. Have read every auto mag on the Lexus and their is uniform agreement that "this is no Lexus." It is lacking in key luxury features and is nothing but a gussied up Prius. I do not know where your writer gets him info, but tell him that someone who is anxious to buy has exhausted the review literature. Send him to Consumers Report which is about as favorable a review as I have seen and it ain't pretty.
Hi Ken, Thanks for your feedback about the Lexus vs. Prius. It is true in some ways that the Ct 200h is not like other Lexus models and I can understand people thinking it is a gussied up Prius. They have exactly the same drivetrain. The CT is also is the most basic Lexus you can get in terms of luxury features, but the ones I tested had more luxury features than the recent BMW X1, X3, and 328i I drove. I have tested the CT 200h twice. Once on a long weekend road trip to Cape Cod MA where I really got to know the car. I liked it a lot. I also have owned a Lexus RX 350 and I currently own an IS 350C, so I know what Lexus is like. You should give it a try. Don't take any one review as the final word. On Lexus cites I frequent the CT owners LOVE their car. That is all that really matters. As for Consumer Reports, I like what they do, and I often refer to them in stories. However, I have also met the CR guys. The last one I met was at the Monticello Motor Club (Racetrack) this past fall. We got to talking and I learned he didn't own a car. Don't take your car advise from guys that don't own cars. :) Thanks again for reading and writing.
If I worked at CR and was expected to take any one of a fleet of new cars home every day, I wouldn't own a car.
Excellent point! maybe the CR folks do have that many cars to use. The auto writers I know, even the elite, don't have a steady stream reliable enough to get rid of their own car though.
Leasing a CT200h for going on two years now. Agree with the article author's assessment: aside from forward acceleration it is a very nice car. And actually around town even that is ok (not great, but ok): where it really falls down is at road speed trying to pass on an undivided highway. But at least my driving patterns don't take me onto such roads often, so not a huge issue personally. Switched to the CT200h from a BMW 318ti after I got fed up waiting for BMW to sell a 1-series hatch in the US (and no, I most emphatically do NOT include the X1 in that category: it is taller, larger, 700 pounds heavier, and is basically a SUV that got dried on the wrong heat setting). Anyway, the CT200h has tighter handling than the 318, though there is some intangible superiority to the 318's road feel. However, 1) by all accounts new BMWs don't drive as well as old ones either, and 2) the CT200h includes a spare tire, which BMW has deigned to discard in favor of runflats. Horrible idea imo, which explains the large sales of after-market BMW spares in the US and Australia. Overall, the CT200h is a nice car, and will suit me until somebody comes out with a better car in the same size/style.
Thanks for the first-hand information Eric. We appreciate it. I reviewed the BMW X1 this month and I too came away unimpressed. What I like most about what you wrote is you never fell back on "42 MPG combined" which of course, is a big reason the CT 200h is unique.
You're quite welcome. Guess the mileage thing didn't occur to me. While it is true that I considered mileage, I've always driven four-bangers anyways so it wasn't a huge issue: on the road the 318ti saw > 30mpg. And for the record, per the data accumulated in the Android Mileage app (simple, free, recommended) I've averaged 36.08mpg over the past two years. Of course winters that's down some due to CA winter fuel formulation, but mostly that's probably my right foot. :-) Anyway, the CT200h isn't _always_ over 40mpg, though the app says my best single tank was.
Why would one buy a 2014 if the 2015 Prius have so much more to offer! Prius fans are waiting for the 2015 Prius. I would assume that 2014 would decrease. It would have been better not to launch a 2014. Speed up the production of the 2015 and watch sales soar.
I'm in the market for a new car and would like to get a Prius. But I won't go in a lot until I see the 2015 Prius announcement. No way I'm going to buy something and find out six months later that the new model is great and I should have waited. I'm also hoping that the Chevy Volt redesign comes out this year. I test drove a Volt and it was a great drive. But again, I know they have a new model about to be released and hopefully they pull the trigger this year instead of 2016. Lastly, my friend just bought a VW Jetta TDI. The damn thing gets 40mpg and this is with NO hybrid technology. Just a regular engine running diesel. If VW can do that with no additional technology, the next Prius better knock it out of the ballpark otherwise it won't be anything special.
Cool point about the VW diesel's mileage. At the risk of straying slightly off-topic, something I've been wondering is why nobody embeds a diesel in a hybrid powertrain. Probably some very good reason, perhaps relating to the preference for an Atkinson cycle in existing hybrids. Anybody know why no diesel hybrids?
James and Eric, great commentary. In don't see the VW diesel mileage that way. To me 40 mpg for that class of car seems about average. The VW doesn't beat it's rival gas power ( non-hybrid) peers in combined fuel economy. Factor in 20% more expensive fuel and it doesn't even keep up. :: With regard to diesel hybrids, remember that diesel engines output more CO2 than do gasoline motors. Coupled with the fuel cost penalty and the fact that diesels really can't beat gas engines' combined fuel economy in affordable cars and you have your answer. Now a natural gas hybrid does makes sense. We did a recent story on that.
I liked your comment so much I made it a story:
Thanks John, just finally got a chance to take a read. Interesting -- my perspective on diesel is largely shaped by reading Roundel, where comments based on Euro experience skew positive. Hadn't paid close attention to the refinery efficiency issues which you mention. Guess that, aside from innate engine efficiency differences, this highlights one important consideration: if we're going to make an effort to switch fuel technologies anyway, might as well be to something non-hydrocarbon or at least non-crude derived.
Here's Europe. Italy to be right. Here diesel is a most. High MPG and lower price than gas push it so strong. But take care about the important different between the combustibles. Diesel contains more energy. The same thermal efficiency of a diesel and a gas car is when the diesel consumption is 15% less than gas. Here more of the cars are diesel and you can feel in the air pollution, especially in winter.
The TDI cars have an advantage over gas cars and that is that the fuel is more dense than gas. Diesel is about 14% more energy dense per volume than gas if I remember right. So if a TDI gets 14% more MPG, it isn't any more efficient, it just has more energy to work with.
Excellent point. Real life results are what I care about most. I like to go to and check out the fuel economy of, say ay a 2014 Jetta vs. a Corolla LE Eco. The Corolla uses only gas and get more miles per gallon. Then click the energy and environment tab and note the Jetta outputs more CO2 per mile than the Corolla. In theory diesel might have more energy density. However, in affordable family cars it is very hard to find examples of diesels in the US exceeding the fuel economy of the best gas cars in the class and the diesels always output more CO2 per mile. Throw considerable money at the issue and the diesels do have some good results. So too do luxury hybrid gasoline cars.
How did the Hybrid do in cold weather, I heard they lost half their power, what are the all electric cars going to do when the grid goes down!!! Another dead car!
Hybrids like the Prius can run fine without the electric hybrid battery being fully charged. They are sold in all climates and not affected by cold temperatures much, if at all. The plug-in hybrids can precondition their drivetrains (batteries) and cabins for the vehicle to be warm when needed and the battery on full power for electric only driving. Hybrids use gasoline to power their gasoline engine and mainly regenerative braking to charge their battery packs. With regard to the second question, I guess "when the grid goes down" the electric cars will use generators to recharge, just as gas stations use generators to pump gasoline for customers until "the grid goes up." Unless you are talking about a Zombie apocalypse, I'm not really sure where you expect to be driving to in your small family commuter car if there is no power in the community.
With 175,000 miles on my 2005 Prius I am definitely looking forward to driving something different. Getting impatient and not sure if I can wait for the 2015 to hit the showroom whenever that may be. Checking out the Mazda 3 as an alternative since it seems to have gotten high marks from everyone who has reviewed it ...especially Consumer Reports.
Perhaps leasing these new cars would be the best option when the technology is changing this fast. Choice in electric cars and plug-in hybrids seems that it will be increasing rapidly in the next 5-10 yrs. I've never leased a car and usually hold on to my cars for 10 yrs, but am thinking that when I'm ready to trade my 2010 prius in the next few years, if the technology doesn't knock my socks off, I'll seriously consider a lease.
Agree with Tom Mozdzen: the CT200h is the first car I've ever leased, and the rate of change right now was one big reason. The other was my concern over the (lack of) power, which perceptually at least is exacerbated by the horrendously impotent-sounding noises coming out of the CVT as it attempts to marshal what power it does have. Slowly getting used to that, and the car is otherwise quite nice so will do for now. Been meaning to drop by the local Tesla dealer to "inquire" about the presence of a spare tire though: hoping that they might see the error of their ways and include one in future models (thinking model E in particular).
" She meant the Prius we were passing on the highway like it was going backwards" I've never ever had a problem cruising in my Prius at ten over. Either you are a reckless idiot who should not be allowed to drive, or your point is utterly meaningless as you just happened to pass someone who was choosing to drive slowly.
Or instead of merging onto the highway at proper merge speeds the Prius was entering the right lane at 45 in a 65 zone.
Author, be careful in saying other hybrids get close to the mileage of the Prius. Ford has finally been forced to change the MPG of their Ford Fusion Hybrid from 47 to 42 MPG average. The 2014 Honda Accord so far only gets about 42MPG real world average on and, this is better than the ~40.5MPG of the Ford Fusion Hybrid but I think their EPA numbers will go down as well. I'm waiting for lean burn engines to come back! Honda made great lean burn engines back in the late 90s, early 2000s but the catalytic converters couldn't scrub the exhaust enough.
Well said. Ford's second "mistake" calculating fuel mileage.
I think "Atkinson cycle" engines are the new lean burn engines (as in " 40 is the new 30"). The next crazy ICE technology may be the ones that act more like diesels with spark-less combustion at certain operating cycles, but use gasoline to achieve higher MPG.