You know we’re living in different times when a car manufacturer cites a satirical TV cartoon show in its marketing strategy.
But that’s what Toyota is doing when it comes to extolling the virtues of its Prius models. According to the company’s North American senior vice-president of operations, Bob Carter, the Prius is now “a pop culture item”, having been featured on the South Park TV show, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies trilogy….among others. Carter calls the South Park episode “a badge of honor”. As well, having celebrities like Leonard DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and others piloting one doesn’t hurt its image either. During the 2006 Academy Awards ceremonies, for example, at least 25 celebs made their entrances behind the wheel of a Prius.
Since its inauspicious beginnings in 1997, the Prius has gone on to spawn 23 hybrid models in Toyota / Lexus’ lineup, and altogether, the company has sold some 5,000,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide. Describing the first Prius as an “odd little bundle”, Carter claims that the hybrids sold by Toyota have saved some 3,000,000,000 gallons of gas that would otherwise have been guzzled up by less fuel efficient cars, while taking some 34,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the environment.
It wasn’t always an easy sell. At least not in the beginning. Toyota had to convince consumers to buy a car that they didn’t necessarily need, back when gasoline was cheaper than bottled water and other executives, such as General Motors’ Bob Lutz derided hybrid technology as “a science project”. “Consumers didn’t know they wanted it,” adds Toyota’s national business planning manager, Geri Yoza. “We had to create a community.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Relying heavily on then-fresh internet marketing, Toyota had a backlog of order for the Prius one year after it was launched and these days, some 70 per cent of all hybrid models sold around the globe are a Toyota product of one kind or another. The Prius now accounts for over 16 per cent of all of Toyota’s sales and 60 per cent of the company’s hybrid sales come from it.
There’s more. From 2009 to 2012, the Prius was the second best-selling car in Japan, and Europeans have purchased over half a million of them. In this country, it’s available in four different varieties and Toyota has sold over 85,000 in Canada. In what may be the highest recommendation of all, in many Canadian cities, the Prius is the taxi cab of choice. Some science project.
According to Toyota, hybrid technology is now a “halo” for the company and they took it on the road last Fall to tell the world, with the “Toyota Hybrid World Tour”. Ironically enough, the tour landed in the shadow of Motown, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. About a half-hour’s drive from the wreckage that is now Detroit.
On hand were some familiar faces, such as the entire Prius line, the Lexus CT200h, RX450h, and ES300h, as well as some models sold elsewhere, such as the Yaris Hybrid, Aurius Hybrid, and Alfard mini-van. Not to mention a couple of fuel cell-powered Highlanders (cost: a cool $1 million apiece, thank you very much) and one of Toyota’s hybrid LeMans entries, which competed in this year’s contest and took home a podium finish. Clearly, this is a company that has fully embraced hybrid technology and sees no end in sight
So what does the future hold for the world’s biggest hybrid manufacturer? Among other things, says company chief managing officer, Satoshi Ogiso, we can expect to see a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are smaller with better charge-holding capabilities; lighter and higher-revving electric motors; new vehicle architecture; and - this is a biggie - a cordless charging system for plug-in models. Ogiso is coy about this last feature, but his company has been trying make plug-in technology less cumbersome, he explains, and when the time is right, you will be able to re-charge your plug-in without having actually, er, plug in. A remote charging unit located underground will replenish the vehicle’s batteries just by parking the car over it. We may see some of these features by 2015, promises Ogiso. Also in the works: a hybrid pick-up truck of some kind and more fuel cell prototypes.
There may also be a new hybrid model coming to Canada. The Aurius, which is currently sold in the UK as either a hatchback or sleek estate wagon, shares many components with the Lexus CT200h, which is already in the Lexus line-up here. According to Toyota, there are many things about the Aurius that would be “significant” for the Canadian market. Toyota is a company that plays its cards pretty close to the chest, but we could see the Aurius here within a year.
“Hybrid technology was once described as ‘bridge technology’”, adds Bob Carter. “If this is the case, it’s a very long bridge.”