Toyota’s Prius, a niche oddity when it went on sale 15 years ago, jumped to the world’s third best-selling car line in the first quarter as U.S. demand and incentives in Japan turned the hybrid into a mainstream hit.
Prius sales more than doubled as Toyota extended the name to a four-model “family” of vehicles at the same time that rebates and tax breaks in Japan are saving buyers the equivalent of $2,500 or more. In the quarter, sales soared to 247,230, trailing only Toyota’s Corolla, at 300,800, and Ford’s 277,000 Focus sales.
The Prius surge propelled the Toyota City, Japan-based company back into the global sales lead for the first three months of the year. The hybrid line also gives the Toyota brand three of the top 10 models in the U.S. so far this year, including its midsize Camry.
“It proves Prius wasn’t a fluke, that there’s a long-term market for hybrids,” said Eric Noble, president of the Car Lab, an automotive consultancy in Orange, California.
Aqua has become the car of the moment in Japan, helping more than triple Prius family sales in the country to 175,080 in the first quarter, from 52,507 last year. While funds for the rebates may run out in July if the government doesn’t extend them, the tax reductions continue through 2015.
Since the start of Prius sales in Japan in 1997, Toyota has sold 4 million hybrid-electric vehicles worldwide, including 1.5 million in the U.S., the company said May 22.
In the U.S., typically Toyota’s top market for Prius, sales jumped 42 percent in the first quarter, and 56 percent through April to a record 86,027. U.S. sales of the model since its 2000 introduction, including the new variations, total 1.18 million vehicle. Global sales increased 125 percent.
Prius sets a standard of success for alternatively powered cars, including Nissan’s all-electric Leaf and GM’s Chevrolet Volt, which has a gas-burning generator on board to extend the range of the electric-drive car.
The top-selling vehicle line in the U.S. for the past 30 years has been Ford’s F-Series pickup truck, which includes F- 150, F-250 and other models. Toyota’s Camry has been the top- selling car in the U.S. for 10 years.
While the current rate suggests U.S. drivers may want to buy 250,000 or more Prius models in 2012, the region may not get more than its planned 220,000 units.
“I’ve ordered additional production,” Bob Carter, Toyota’s group vice president of U.S. sales, said in a May 7 interview. “I’m confident we’ll get additional production, but globally we’re seeing high demand, particularly in Japan.”