Toyota Prius Plug-in: the little electric hybrid that could

The Toyota Prius Plug-in doesn't have quite the sales numbers as the headline-grabbing Chevy Volt. But Toyota's entry into the electric hybrid market with the Prius Plug-in has been a quiet initial success for the automaker.

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc/PRNewsFoto/File
The 2012 Prius Plug-in is shown in this undated commercial file photo. The Prius entry into the electric hybrid car market has been a quiet win for Toyota. Less than a year after its initial launch, The Prius Plug-in is the second best-selling plug-in on the market, behind the Chevy Volt.

The Chevy Volt, General Motors’ foray into the electric hybrid market, has been the subject of heated debate in recent weeks, from its robust sales figures and customer satisfaction to quibbles over profit loss and the feasibility of the electric car market in general.

But while the Volt grabbed the headlines, Toyota quietly nursed along its own electric hybrid, the Prius Plug-in, to pleasing, if modest, results.

Since its launch last year, the Prius Plug-in has sold 7, 734, units in the United States, according to data from Automakers and Automotive  News. That’s considerably less than the Volt, which moved 16,348 units this year. But it’s more than the Nissan Leaf, the purely electric model that came in third place (5,212 sold this year).  The Prius Plug-in was the second-fastest selling car in March 2012, and the third-fastest in April.  It even outpaced sales of the Volt during the month of April. The car gets the gasoline equivalent of 95 miles per gallon and has a starting price in the US of about $32,000.

It’s a good start, especially for a vehicle in a category that comprises a mere sliver of the automotive market (some perspective: The Ford F-Series pickup truck, the top-selling car in August 2012, moved 58,201 units that month). What’s more, the Prius Plug-In is only available in 15 “launch” states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. The car will be available in remaining states sometime in 2013.

What accounts for the Prius Plug-In’s strong start? Keley Mays, a blogger at Cars.com, posits that some of it has to do with brand recognition:  As of February 2012. 2.5 million cars carrying the Prius name have been sold worldwide. “That makes it relatively mainstream,” Mays writes.  “Americans have bought four Priuses for every five Hyundai Sonatas [a briskly-selling  gasoline-powered sedan] over the same span.”

What’s more, Toyota isn’t afraid to get a little creative with marketing.  On Sunday, the Home Shopping Network devoted a three-hour programming block to the Prius and other Toyota-model hybrids  in a segment called “Discover Toyota”– the first fully car-devoted programming in the network’s 34-year history, according to USA Today. HSN couldn’t sell the cars directly, but it did give Toyota an outlet to explain the features and technology of the Prius lineup , a move that Toyota officials touted as a great success. 

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