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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Prius No. 1 in Japan sales as hybrid interest grows

The Toyota Prius is so sought after in Japan it is the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle to top annual sales, with buyers willing to wait six months for delivery.

The Prius has caught on in the U.S. and other parts of the world as well, although not with quite the same passionate intensity as it has in Japan, Toyota Motor Corp.'s home market.

Its success underlines the shift among consumers to embrace green auto technology that appears to go beyond a simple moneysaving response to the ups and downs of gasoline prices.

But Toyota can also expect competition to heat up this year, with rivals readying fuel-efficient models, including the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle from Detroit-based General Motors Co.

The Japan Automobile Dealers Association said Friday that Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius was No. 1 in its ranking of sales by vehicle models — with 208,876 Prius cars sold in 2009, nearly three times the numbers sold the previous year.

Ritsuko Murosaki is one proud owner.

"I was a bit worried about its power but once I got used to it, it is so quiet and it drives great," said the 45-year-old secretary who drives to work in central Tokyo from the suburb of Yokohama. "When you stop at a traffic light, you can experience zero CO2 emissions because there's no idling."

Globally, Prius sales last year rose 41 percent to about 404,000 vehicles from the previous year, according to Toyota.

Prius sales in North America fell 12 percent to 144,300 last year, but that was amid a big overall auto slump, and sales are expected to recover this year.

In Japan, the Prius easily outsold the No. 2 hybrid, the Honda Insight, at 93,283 for the year, and ranking fifth in overall Japan sales.

Coming in second for overall car sales was Honda Motor Co.'s Fit, followed by the Toyota Vitz. Neither are hybrids but both are small and fuel-efficient models.

Green models have gotten a huge lift this year in Japan from a government cash-for-clunkers program and tax breaks, aimed at boosting sales during a slowdown that has seriously hurt Japanese automakers.

The Prius has been the biggest beneficiary of the policy.

Hybrid sales got a perk from the cash-for-clunkers program in the U.S., but that only lasted about a month. The program in Japan is being extended by a half-year through September.

"The Prius is just the talk of the town," said Hiroyuki Naito, a Tokyo Toyota dealer, who could barely control his glee over a fresh flurry of orders after the incentives were extended. "The model appeals to a wide range of people. Some are switching from import models, while others are switching from luxury models."

Hybrid sales already make up about 10 percent of new vehicle sales in Japan. Green Car Congress, which researches and compiles reports on green technology, said hybrids had a 2.8 percent share of new vehicle sales in the U.S. last year.

"The Prius is proving to be the solitary runaway winner," said Mamoru Katou, auto analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research.

A model that sells 20,000 a month in Japan is rare, said Katou, adding that he expects the Prius to sell in even bigger numbers in 2010 in Japan.

Pricing has been a big reason for its success, according to Katou.

That value-for-the money perception is unlikely to be threatened until the arrival of Honda's hybrid Fit in Japan expected later this year, he said.

Honda has not yet disclosed overseas sales plans for the hybrid Fit.

In an effort to ride out the competition of rivals, especially the Insight, Toyota has kept prices down on the Prius — starting at $22,000, unchanged from the base price for the 2009 model, and a more basic U.S. model starting at $21,000.

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