Prius buyers "making a statement about me"
- Published Wednesday, July 4, 2007, in the New York Times
Say "Hybrid" and Many People Will Hear "Prius"
By Micheline Maynard
A riddle: Why has the Toyota Prius enjoyed such success, with sales of
more than 400,000 in the United States, when most other hybrid models
struggle to find buyers?
One answer may be that buyers of the Prius want everyone to know they
are driving a hybrid.
The Prius, after all, was built from the ground up as a hybrid, and is
sold only as a hybrid. By contrast, the main way to tell that a Honda
Civic, Ford Escape or Saturn Vue is a hybrid version is a small badge
on the trunk or side panel.
The Prius has become, in a sense, the four-wheel equivalent of those
popular rubber "issue bracelets" in yellow and other colors -- it
shows the world that its owner cares.
In fact, more than half of the Prius buyers surveyed this spring by
CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said the main reason they
purchased their car was that "it makes a statement about me."
Only a third of Prius owners cited that reason just three years ago,
according to CNW, which tracks consumer buying trends.
"I really want people to know that I care about the environment," said
Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. "I like that
people stop and ask me how I like my car."
Mary Gatch of Charleston, S.C., chose the car over a hybrid version of
the Toyota Camry after trading in a Lexus sedan.
"I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted
to put out there," Ms. Gatch said. "I wanted to have the biggest
impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message."
Unlike the original Prius buyers, who wanted to be first with its
innovative technology, the latest owners are far more conscious of
foreign oil dependence and global warming, said Doug Coleman, Toyota's
product manager for Prius.
"Consumer knowledge and consumer awareness is changing," Mr. Coleman
Prius sales for the first six months of the year are up 93.7 percent
from last year, to 94,503, and Toyota has already sold close to as
many Prius cars as it did in all of 2006.
To be sure, many owners are still choosing the Prius for the fuel
economy that a hybrid offers -- rated at 60 miles a gallon in city
driving and 51 on the highway (although those numbers are estimated at
48 miles a gallon for city driving and 45 on the highway for 2008
models under more realistic government-imposed standards). But many
are looking for something extra.
"The Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the
first time ever," said Dan Becker, head of the global warming program
at the Sierra Club (and yes, a Prius owner).
Not everyone is a fan of the statement. Some postings on Internet car
discussion groups occasionally make dismissive references to "Pious
Prius was first embraced by Hollywood stars and other celebrities and
remains in vogue long after most cars have lost their buzz. Owners
have included Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Joel, Bill Maher
and Larry David. Mr. David has bought three, including one for his
character to drive on his HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Now Prius drivers are typically found in cities on the East and West
Coasts, and in college towns like Ann Arbor, Mich., and State College,
"You can't drive across town without seeing half a dozen of them,"
said Peter A. Darnell, a software engineer and Prius owner in
Westford, Mass., north of Boston.
Mr. Darnell admits to feeling smug this year when gasoline prices
spiked above $3 a gallon. But that was not the main reason he bought
his car. "I have to admit that I'm a granola-crunching liberal, and I
really liked the idea of minimizing the impact on the environment,"
Mr. Darnell said.
Corey Confer, general sales manager at Joel Confer Toyota in State
College, said he had received calls from as far away as Key West,
Fla., from buyers looking for a Prius.
His dealership advertises an $800 discount on each vehicle, while some
dealers in the West, where gas prices are highest, are adding $2,000
Nationwide, Prius sales jumped sharply in May, when gasoline prices
rose above $3 a gallon. Worldwide, Toyota has sold more than one
million Prius cars.
Toyota was alarmed to see Prius sales flatten last year, just when it
planned to double shipments to the United States. It sold 105,000 in
2006, but is on track to sell 175,000 this year.
Before gas prices hit record levels, Prius sales were climbing, in
part because of the first national advertising campaign, as well as
rebates, which began in February.
The deals caught Dave Hancock's eye. "I usually fast-forward past
commercials, but I put on the brakes and said, What's this?" said
Mr. Hancock of Rochester.
When he brought home his car, his daughter called from Atlanta to
congratulate her parents "for being so environmentally conscious,"
said Mr. Hancock, who is retired from the Eastman Kodak Company.
Toyota's competitors have had little success in approaching the sales
level of the Prius, but not for lack of trying.
Honda actually beat Toyota to the hybrid market with its Insight, but
it has since discontinued that car. And it is dropping a hybrid
version of the Accord, whose gas mileage was not much better than the
gas-powered Accord, and carried a higher price.
Honda, which sells a hybrid Civic, said it planned to come back with a
new hybrid designed from the ground up as a hybrid, not a converted
car. It is already giving sneak peeks to environmentalists like
Mr. Becker of the Sierra Club, who drove a prototype brought to
Washington by Honda engineers.
General Motors has been promoting the Chevrolet Volt, a concept hybrid
that it says it will build once it has developed batteries for it.
In the meantime, G.M. is selling the Saturn Vue, a small sport utility
vehicle that is available in "mild hybrid" form, meaning that it has
an electric motor that can assist its primary gas engine but the car
cannot run on electricity alone. G.M. also plans to introduce a
hybrid version of the Saturn Aura car and says it will eventually have
12 hybrid vehicles, although Volt appears to be the only one that
would be built specifically as a hybrid.
"We think we're covering the market well," said Brian Corbett, a
So does the Ford Motor Company, even though it has pulled back from a
commitment to sell 250,000 hybrids a year in the United States by
In June, Ford officials, including the chief executive, Alan
R. Mulally, said the company had more hybrids under development beyond
the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner, both small S.U.V.'s. It has not
set a new target for hybrid sales. Escape sales are up 10 percent
this year, with Ford expecting to sell 22,000.
Toyota executives have said they plan to offer a hybrid version of
everything the company sells worldwide, perhaps as soon as 2010.
Japanese press reports say Toyota may even build Prius into a separate
brand, with basic and sporty Prius models.
Automotive News reported that Toyota may add a stand-alone hybrid for
Lexus, which sells several hybrid cars and S.U.V.'s. Mr. Coleman of
Toyota would not discuss specifics, but he said senior management "is
very bullish" on hybrids.
Nick Bunkley and Mary M. Chapman contributed reporting.
Top reasons customers citred for buying a Prius
Reason / 2Q2007 / 1Q2004
"Making a statement about me" / 57% / 34%
Other (including incentives, business, etc) / 42% / 42%
Higher fuel economy / 36% / 27%
Distinctive styling / 33% / 41%
Lower emissions / 25% / 36%
New technology / 7% / 19%
Source: CNW Marketing Research