Toyota dominates the hybrid vehicle market
You know times have changed when a car manufacturer cites a satirical animated TV series in its marketing strategy.
That’s what Toyota is doing when it comes to extolling the virtues of its Prius models. According to the company’s North American senior vice-president of operations, Bob Carter, the Prius is now “a pop culture item”, having been featured on South Park and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie trilogy, among others. He calls the South Park episode “a badge of honor”. Having celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and others piloting one doesn’t hurt its image either. At the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony, for example, at least 25 celebs made their entrance behind the wheel of a Prius.
Since its inauspicious beginnings in 1997, the Prius has spawned 23 hybrid models in Toyota/Lexus’s lineup, and altogether the company has sold some 5,000,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide. Describing the first Prius as an “odd little bundle”, Carter claims the hybrids sold by Toyota have saved some 3,000,000,000 gallons of gas that would otherwise have been guzzled by less fuel-efficient cars, while taking some 34,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the environment.
It wasn’t always an easy sell, not in the beginning. Toyota had to convince consumers to buy a car they didn’t necessarily need, back when gasoline was cheaper than bottled water and executives such as General Motors’ Bob Lutz derided hybrid technology as “a science project”. “Consumers didn’t know they wanted it,” says Toyota’s national business planning manager, Geri Yoza. “We had to create a community.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Relying heavily on then-fresh Internet marketing, Toyota had a backlog of orders for the Prius one year after it was launched, and these days some 70 percent of all hybrid models sold around the globe are Toyota products of one kind or another. The Prius accounts for over 16 percent of Toyota’s sales, and 60 percent of the company’s hybrid sales come from it.
There’s more. From 2009 to 2012, the Prius was the second-best-selling car in Japan, and Europeans have purchased over half a million of them. In this country, the Prius is available in four varieties; Toyota has sold over 85,000 of them in Canada. In what may be the highest recommendation of all, in many Canadian cities the Prius is the taxicab of choice. Some science project.
According to Toyota, hybrid technology is a “halo” for the company, and they’ve taken it on the road to tell the world, with the “Toyota Hybrid World Tour”. Ironically enough, the tour landed in the shadow of Motown, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, about a half-hour’s drive from the wreckage that is Detroit.
On hand were some familiar faces, including the entire Prius line; the Lexus CT200h, RX450h, and ES300h; and some models sold elsewhere, such as the Yaris Hybrid, the Auris Hybrid, and the Alphard minivan. Not to mention a couple of fuel cell–powered Highlanders (cost: a cool $1 million apiece) and one of Toyota’s hybrid Le Mans entries, which competed in this year’s contest and took home a podium finish. Clearly, this is a company that’s fully embraced hybrid technology and sees no end in sight.
So what does the future hold for the world’s biggest hybrid manufacturer? Chief managing officer Satoshi Ogiso says that, among other things, we can expect to see a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are smaller and have better charge-holding capabilities; lighter and higher-revving electric motors; new vehicle architecture; and—this is a biggie—a cordless charging system for plug-in models. Ogiso is coy about this last feature, but he explains that his company has been trying to make plug-in technology less cumbersome, and when the time is right, you’ll be able to recharge your plug-in without having to actually, er, plug in. A remote charging unit located underground will allow you to replenish the vehicle’s batteries just by parking the car over it. Ogiso says we may see some of these features by 2015. Also in the works are a hybrid pickup truck of some kind and more fuel-cell prototypes.
There may also be a new hybrid model coming to Canada. The Auris, which is sold in the U.K. as either a hatchback or a sleek estate wagon, shares many components with the Lexus CT200h, which is already in the Lexus lineup here. According to Toyota, there are many characteristics of the Auris that would be “significant” for the Canadian market. Toyota is a company that plays its cards pretty close to the chest, but we could see the Auris here within a year.
“Hybrid technology was once described as ‘bridge technology’,” Carter adds. “If this is the case, it’s a very long bridge.”