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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Toyota slashes Prius prices

TOYOTA Australia has taken an axe to the price of its hybrid icon, the Prius, which can now be had for as little at $34,990.

The move follows the Australian release of the first small hatchback from Lexus, the CT200h hybrid, which went on sale last week priced from a lower than expected $39,990, and a 65 per cent slump in Prius sales in March.

The entry-level Prius is now $5000 less expensive than the closely related but more luxurious Lexus and $2000 less than the larger Australian-assembled Camry Hybrid sedan (from $36,990).

While an even bigger $7510 has been sliced from the price of the flagship Prius i-Tech variant, which is now priced at $45,990 (down from $53,500), the Prius’ new sub-$35,000 starting price is $5000 higher than Honda’s similarly sized Insight hatch ($29,990), with which it battles for outright top-selling vehicle honours in Japan.

Honda’s more highly specified Insight VTi-L ($33,490) still costs $1500 less than the base Prius, however, while Australia’s only other mainstream hybrid – Honda’s small Civic Hybrid sedan – remains $500 cheaper at $33,490.

The Prius has undergone a remarkable sales slide since it was launched locally in third-generation guise in July 2009. At the time, Toyota Australia forecast it would sell 4500 examples of the world’s first mass-market hybrid in 2010, equating to a monthly average of 375 sales.

Instead, the Prius averaged 134 monthly sales last year for a total of just 1611 – 47 per cent down on the 3040 examples it sold in 2009 and less than half the number sold in the Prius’ halcyon year of 2008, when a spike in petrol prices helped sales to an annual high of 3413.

In the first quarter of this year Toyota sold just 167 Prius cars for a monthly average of fewer than 56, representing a 63.7 per cent sales slide on 2010 levels.

The Prius, which has narrowly been outsold by the Insight (176 sales) so far this year, now accounts for just 0.3 per cent of the mainstream small-car market segment – down from 0.7 per cent in 2010 and 1.5 per cent in 2008 and 2009.

Meantime, the evergreen Corolla experienced a last-gasp sales surge late last year to reclaim segment leadership from the Mazda3 in 2010, and while Corolla sales remain steady in 2011, a near 10 per cent lift in popularity has seen the Mazda3 surge ahead in the first three months of this year.

Toyota’s third small-car contender, the Corolla-based Rukus hatch, attracted just 114 sales last month – well down on the 150-200 forecast Toyota announced at its launch last May – despite the addition of a ‘Halo’ special-edition in mid-March. With just 314 sales so far this year, the Rukus has averaged fewer than 105 sales per month – down from the 136 it averaged last year.

The Prius’ sales decline is at odds with the petrol-electric model’s stellar sales performance elsewhere in the world, however, and Toyota – which has committed to producing a hybrid version of every model in its range by 2020 – remains committed to expanding the Prius model family.

The MkIII Prius is likely to be joined by a plug-in version next year after global trials of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid last year, while the seven-seat Prius+ people-mover that was revealed at last month’s Geneva motor show is under local consideration and the compact Prius C city-car will make its Australian debut at the Melbourne motor show in July.

Meantime, Lexus will continue its headlong hybrid charge at the expense of diesel power – at least in Australia – by following up the dedicated-hybrid CT200h with a redesigned GS large hybrid sedan. It will make its world debut in concept form at the New York motor show in two weeks and should join hybrid versions of the RX crossover and LS limousine in Australia next year.

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