After undergoing a complete makeover for the 2023 model year, the Toyota Prius is winning rave reviews, not only for its industry-leading fuel economy but for addressing two things that prior versions of the hybrid were traditional faulted for. The new Prius is not only stylish but sporty, delivering 60% more horsepower for the conventional hybrid and 77% more for the plug-in Prius+.
Yet, despite all that, the fifth-generation model is unlikely to come even close to its past glory when it comes to sales. According to one senior Toyota executive, the new Prius will generate barely 15% of the peak volume it set a decade ago, when demand was so strong it ranked as the best-selling nameplate in the California market.
The Prius “will play a different role in our line-up” than it did in years past, Lisa Materazzo, Toyota’s executive vice president for marketing in the U.S., told TheDetroitBureau.com during a media drive of the hybrid earlier this month.
An instant hit, but success didn’t last long
The Prius badge debuted in 1998 in the Japanese market and was the world’s first mass-market gas-electric hybrid. The automaker started introducing it in other markets, including the U.S., a few years later, switching from a sedan body to the hatchback styling used ever since. With fuel economy nudging into the 50 mpg range, Prius was a near-instant success. And, at one point, it encouraged Toyota to add two variants, the bigger V model, and the smaller Prius C. (The original model topped out at 147,000 sales that year.)
Demand for what Toyota called the “Prius family” peaked at 236,655 in 2012. And the hybrid raced up the sales chart in California, where it became the state’s best-selling nameplate. But, by the latter half of the decade, demand began to slacken and Toyota pared the line-up back to the original hatchback.
By 2021, sales of the remaining model were down to 59,000. And, for the first 11 months of this year, the number has fallen roughly another 40 percent.
Demand could rebound slightly in 2023, especially if Toyota can finally get a grip on the semiconductor shortages that have repeatedly forced production cuts across its line-up, officials told TheDetroitBureau. But, in an interview with Automotive News, Materazzo estimated demand likely will hit only about 35,000 in 2023.
Considering the rave reviews, that’s raising questions about why the new Prius can’t stage a strong rebound. A variety of factors appear to be in play.
For one thing, early demand in the key state of California was buoyed by regulations that granted hybrid owners access to the state’s coveted HOV, or high-occupancy vehicle, lanes. For commuters that could save a significant amount of time every day, something many found even more valuable than the savings on fuel.
And, “In the old days, Prius was pretty much its own game,” said Michelle Krebs, principal auto analyst with Cox Automotive.
Plenty of competition — much of it from Toyota
No longer. Virtually every manufacturer on the market now offers a hybrid in the line-up, from mainstream brands like Ford, Honda and Hyundai, to upscale marques including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And some of the biggest competition is coming from Toyota itself.
“Now they have hybrid versions of almost everything in the line-up,” added Krebs, noting there are hybrid options for Toyota products including the compact Corolla and full-size Tundra pickup, while a growing number of models, such as the new Crown sedan and Sienna minivan, are offered only with hybrid powertrains.
All told, gas-electric models represent about a quarter of the Japanese automaker’s U.S. sales.
It may not help, some observers caution, the new Prius starts at $28,545 — including delivery fees — about $5,000 more than the base MSRP for the similarly sized Toyota Corolla. Despite its better mileage and performance, as well as its improved looks, the Corolla hybrid is expected by Toyota to be the stronger seller.
Plenty of hand-raisers
Despite the cautious forecast, some suggest the new Prius could do better than the automaker currently forecasts. Indeed, Toyota officials claim they heard from more than 40,000 “hand-raisers” since the 2023 Prius was unveiled at the LA Auto Show in November. Clearly, not all those will translate into buyers, but it could give the new model a strong foundation, nonetheless.
And it should help Toyota justify the decision to bring out a fifth-generation Prius in the first place. As demand for the prior model — with its much-maligned styling and weak performance — tumbled, a senior company official acknowledged during an interview with TheDetroitBureau.com that the Prius nameplate might have run its course.
As it worked out, Chief Engineer Satoki Oya was given a revised mandate. While fuel economy was important, it wasn’t near the top goal for the 2023 model. Instead, he focused on fixing styling and adding more power.
Whether that will deliver stronger consumer demand than Toyota expects remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that the 2023 Toyota Prius is winning the sort of solid reviews it never earned before.