The Toyota Prius, once revered as the greenest car on the road, has fallen on hard times. Sales are on a six-year losing streak, and now the previously preeminent eco-mobile has fallen behind the Ford Fusion hybrid — a model its parent company plans to pull the plug on in a couple of years.
“The Prius is the model that got us to where we are today; it led the charge to electrification, but now it’s facing so much competition,” said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for researcher LMC Automotive. “The Fusion is having a little bit of a last hurrah to send it off on a higher note.”
More than 4.4 million of the Prius have been sold worldwide since the model’s introduction two decades ago.
But sales peaked in the U.S. in 2012, and its descent roughly follows the rise of Tesla Inc.’s sleek fully electric cars including the more mass market Model 3 sedan. “It’s a competitive business,” Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Corp.’s executive vice president for U.S. sales, said in an interview. “There are some people who trade in their Prius for a Model 3 — I’m well aware of that. But it’s still a very small part of the market.”
While Tesla may have usurped the Prius as the it-car among the glitterati, Toyota and Ford Motor Co. are finding new life for hybrid powertrains by installing them in models with broader appeal: sport utility vehicles and trucks.
The RAV4 small SUV is now among Toyota’s top-selling hybrids. Ford is rolling out gas-electric versions of its Escape and Explorer sport utility vehicles this year and its top-selling F-150 pickup truck next year. Both companies are pitching these as “no compromise” vehicles. That’s automaker-speak for: Don’t worry about finding a place to charge your car and waiting while the battery is replenished.
Gas-electric technology remains cheaper than fully electric powertrains. This is especially the case with so-called mild hybrids that give mostly gasoline-powered cars quick electric-power boosts.
Analysts expect hybrids to outpace electric cars in the U.S. through at least the middle of the next decade.
By 2025, hybrids will represent 15% of the U.S. market, up from 2.7% last year, according to LMC Automotive. Fully electric vehicles will grow to 4.5% from 1.2% in 2018. I
HS Markit predicts hybrids will command 22% of U.S. sales by 2025, while wholly battery-powered vehicles will be 7%.