As America’s new vehicle market shifts to vehicles with four driven wheels, greater ride height, and dog-friendly tailgates, it seems more than sensible for the Toyota Prius to take part in some community outreach.
The Prius, America’s 10th-best-selling car just a decade ago, can keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Or, the Prius can make a significant change – via available “independent electric, magnet-less rear motor” – to offer all-wheel drive, one of the feature sets that’s drawing car buyers away from cars.
And that’s exactly what Toyota has done for the otherwise refreshed 2019 Prius (reviewed last week by our own Matt Posky). In a manner of speaking, Toyota expects big things from the Prius AWD-e: 25 percent of Prius customers, to be precise.
But one-fourth of all Prius volume is not what it used to be. In fact, it’s a far cry from what it used to be. A mere fraction of what it used to be. One-quarter of all Prius volume will make the Prius AWD-e barely more common than the Alfa Romeo Stelvio.
For the Prius, despite a market that’s much more open to green vehicles as a general concept, times have changed, and not in its favour. In 2007, for instance, the introduction of an AWD Prius that would earn 25 percent of all Prius volume would have resulted in over 45,000 annual sales in the United States. But sales of the Prius – by which we mean the core Prius model, not the C or V or Prime – have plunged 60 percent since 2007. In the last half-decade alone, Prius sales are down by half, a startling drop attributed to a number of factors.
First, competition is now everywhere. This isn’t 2000, when the lone Prius alternative was a two-seat Honda with rear wheel skirts. Toyota’s own lineup is littered with hybrids, including three other Prius nameplates that produce three-quarters as much volume as the core Prius. Don’t forget the RAV4 Hybrid that now sells nearly as often as the Prius.
In bites and pieces, little by little, vehicles such as the Ford C-Max, Hyundai Ioniq, and Honda Insight have eaten into the Prius’s pie. Then there are the hybrid versions of mainstream cars, from the Ford Fusion and Kia Optima to Toyota’s own Camry.
Throw in a nascent EV segment, plus a new wave of attention-grabbing green cars, and the Prius’s initial thunder is long since lost. After peaking at over 181,000 sales in 2007, Toyota is on track to generate around 50,000 Prius sales in the U.S. in 2018. (From a high of 236,655 sales in 2012, the entire Prius lineup won’t likely top the 90,000 mark in 2018.)
The increased level of competition hasn’t been the Prius’s only problem. The benefits of Prius ownership – namely, the fuel savings – have dwindled during its lifespan. In 2007, when Prius demand was at its zenith, a Prius owner enjoyed 46 miles per gallon in mixed driving. At the average U.S. price per gallon in 2007 of $2.79 and 12,000 annual miles, that Prius owner saved $794 compared with the owner of an all-wheel-drive 2007 Honda CR-V.
In 2018, two of three models in the Prius lineup are rated at 52 mpg in combined driving. With average fuel prices at $2.42/gallon and big leaps in ICE efficiency, a new Prius saves just $443 compared with a new CR-V over the course of a year.
You won’t be wrong in suggesting that the Prius and CR-V aren’t direct competitors. But don’t ignore the fact that Prius sales tumbled 60 percent since 2007 while CR-V sales jumped 71 percent during the same time period. The CR-V provides meaningful context. Regardless, the Honda is just an example of the advances made by the very vehicles American automobile buyers want. (Fun fact: the Prius’s fuel cost advantage over a F-150 tumbled from $1,504 in 2007 to $824 in 2018, using a 2007 F-150 4.6 4×4 and a 2018 F-150 2.7TT 4×4 as examples.)
The fact that the Prius simply no longer holds the allure it possessed in a prior era is not lost on Toyota, as proven by the company’s push of the successful RAV4 Hybrid, by Prius Prime sales that have grown 34 percent this year to now collect three-in-ten overall Prius sales, and by Toyota’s determination to broaden the Prius’s appeal. As a car trying to relocate vast numbers of its own buyers that have fled for greener pastures, the Prius has company. Think of the Nissan Altima and Mazda 3, both of which are hoping to benefit from all-wheel-drive availability as new iterations launch.
True, they are still just cars, the very sort of machine that’s rapidly fallen out of favour in the U.S. market. But an AWD-e offering could be what Toyota requires to sell more copies of the Prius in Colorado and the northeast (even with degraded fuel economy that takes the Prius AWD-e back to levels the Prius first managed in 2010.)
Besides, the 2019 Toyota Prius AWD-e has ride height on its side. It sits two-tenths of an inch higher than the regular Prius. Don’t for a moment think that there won’t be Toyota sales consultants trying to turn that fraction of an inch into a selling point.