Op-Ed: The Toyota Prius is Falling Behind

It is lonely at the top, and Toyota is no stranger to criticisms these days. Even as sales remain strong, Toyota’s lineup is falling behind the times, including the much vaunted Prius “brand.”

I was there to see the Prius plug-in and Prius V unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show, and I was unimpressed to say the least. The time to unveil a bigger Prius for families was five years ago, and with a combined 42 mpg, the Prius V isn’t exactly groundbreaking. The Toyota Prius has been on the market for over a decade; why did it take so damn long for somebody to figure out “Oh, this small hybrid could use more cargo room.” Duh. And you would think with all the time it took to bring this to market, it’d have as good gas mileage as the regular Prius, right? Wrong. It has a combined mileage of just 42 mpg. Is that really so great?

My problem isn’t just with the Prius V though; the Prius Plug-in offers a scant 13 miles of all-electric range. Compared to other plug-in hybrids, this is disappointing. The Volt offers 25 to 50 miles, the Volvo V60 concept offers 32 miles, and with more plug-ins on the way the Prius’s numbers just don’t add up. Yes, it should be capable of around 60 mpg, but for what price? I guess I just figured that, with a decade head start over every other carmaker (save for Honda) in the world in hybrid technology, Toyota would have something a little more impressive by 2011.

Alas, they have not. All of the sudden, the Prius’s 50 mpg rating doesn’t seem so lofty as four compact cars from key rivals. The Ford Fiesta and 2012 Ford Focus, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, the Chevy Cruze Eco and  2012 Honda Civic all achieve at least 40 mpg highway without hybrid technology. Meanwhile, the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid gets 45 mpg…just a few mpg’s shy of the Prius, and somehow Nissan beat Toyota to the punch with the first mass-market electric vehicle. In a matter of just two years, most automakers have closed the mpg gap with the Prius. In ten years the Prius combined mileage has gone from 41 mpg in 2001 to 51 mpg in 2011. That is a 25% improvement, which sounds good except that the Prius has nothing else to recommend it except its exceptional gas mileage, and 50 mpg just doesn’t seem all that impressive right now, and I haven’t even mentioned any of the awesome diesels the Europeans get.

50% more cargo room just won't cut it these days

It is only a matter of time before some upstart hybrid or diesel takes away the Prius’s MPG crown Toyota pulls a fuel efficient rabbit out of its hat. The Prius is by and far the best-selling hybrid in America and the world, though these days I feel it is getting by more on its name then its own credentials. The car market of 2011 is much different from the car market of 2001, when the Prius debuted. Automakers aren’t focusing on huge SUV’s but rather fuel efficient small cars. There are now over a dozen different choices for somebody wanting a car with around 40 mpg, many of them cheaper then the Prius while offering a lot more in the way of styling and fun, at least to me.

I haven’t even touched upon the millions of recalls Toyota has been forced to make in the last year, or the irreparable blow its reputation took due to the unintended acceleration debacle. In Toyota’s defense, every case of unintended acceleration was caused by driver error, not some electrical gremlin. Then again, I don’t think Toyota deserved its reputation for reliability in the first place, between engines ruined by “gunk” and rusty truck frames (which Toyota managed to shift the blame to the supplier) Toyota vehicles have had just as many problems as any other brand. People are just now starting to see that, and it does not bode well for Toyota.

The stagnation of the Prius is representitive of the entire Toyota brand. The youth-branded Scion is in desperate need of new products, every Lexus (save the LFA) is merely a tarted up Toyota, and the Prius “brand” is a day late and a dollar short compared to other automakers. These days, Toyota vehicles only appeal to boring people (yes I called you boring), people who care about only two things in a car; reliability and fuel efficiency. There is nothing exciting in the Toyota lineup, and while they’ve focused on expanding the Prius brand, the Prius itself suddenly seems very vulnerable.

Since the Prius is the closest thing Toyota has to a halo car right now, and as such, it should be at the forefront of cutting edge technology and fuel efficiency. The Prius is at risk of losing both of those titles to up and comers, and as General Motors has proven, a well-known name will only get you so far. Toyota needs to step its game up with the Prius and offer more then 50% more cargo room and 13 miles of EV range if it wants to stay competitive in the coming years. Judging from how long it took Toyota to figure out people want more cargo room, if Toyota does fall behind the mpg race, I’m not sure the Japanese juggernaut will ever be able to catch up.

I’m sure there are plenty of Toyota apologists and defenders out there ready to jump down my throat…and by all means do. All I ask is that if you disagree with me or other commentators, keep it civil. Otherwise I’ll just delete your comments. So fire away, and keep in mind that you should never take anything I say too seriously.

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMI’s. You can follow his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout.

 

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.