Why the Toyota Prius rules the road despite 15 years of competition

Neal Pollack

This week marked the passing of a car that could have been a contender, as Honda announced that it would halt production on the Insight Hybrid. Though the Insight debuted in the U.S. in 1999, months ahead of the Toyota Prius, Honda sold fewer than 300,000 in the intervening 14 years, nearly half of those in Japan. For most of its existence, the Insight was a speck in the rearview mirror of the Prius, which has sold to more than 3 million owners in the same time.

The Insight was the only car on the market that seriously tried to challenge the Prius on its own turf, a hybrid designed as such. All the other manufacturers have futzed out, putting a hybrid drivetrain into an existing gasoline-powered model. The results have been unwieldy and mostly unpopular; the sole exception, Ford’s C-Max Hybrid, came to market a decade too late and is inferior to the Prius in every way that counts.

When it comes to hybrids, the Prius stands alone; no other single vehicle so dominates its competition. In 2013, the three members of the Prius “family” outsold all other hybrids from all other manufacturers combined. The Prius liftback sold almost four times more than the top-selling hybrid from a company other than Toyota — the Ford Fusion — and in California, it was the top-selling car, period.

But is building hybrids really so difficult that only Toyota can get it right?

Apparently so, though I don’t think it’s because Toyota employs engineering geniuses far and above the rest of the industry. Toyota is simply willing to evaluate the quality of their Prius cars through a different set of metrics. The usual standards don’t apply here. It’s not fast. Though it has a distinctive, even iconic, design, only its creator could find it truly beautiful. It lacks luxury amenities and has the offroad capability of a toy poodle. And, yes, it’s more than a little boring.

On the other hand, the Prius still, to this day, gets the best gas mileage of any non-electric consumer car — a combined 50 miles per gallon in federal ratings. Even if you drive wearing a metal boot (not recommended), you’re still going to get at least 45 mpg around town; a typical owner only has to fill up the 10-gallon gas tank a couple of times a month.

Just as importantly, the Prius lasts a long time. A good number of those original 1999-2000 cars are still around, and early fears of widespread expensive battery failure haven’t played out. Priuses are still running around on their original batteries after 100,000, or even 200,000, miles. There’s a reason why you see so many of them in cab fleets now. They’re easy and inexpensive to maintain.

Also, they have a reasonable price tag. When the Prius first appeared, it was as a trendy novelty car for celebrities to drive to the Oscars, but since then, its influence has gradually trickled down the class ladder. Gone are the days of the “smug alert,” as South Park once mocked. You can buy a base-model liftback for  $26,000 and $28,000, which is below the average cost of a new car in today’s market. If you play it smart, you can get your monthly payment below $200, as affordable as new-car payments come these days.

The Prius doesn’t exactly qualify as a people’s car, but if the people drive a lot and want to pay at least lip service to reducing their carbon footprint — which pretty well describes the median resident of California — then it’s the sweet spot. Add to that some additional minor strengths, like the fact that the cabin is perfectly comfortable enough for four people, and that, with the rear seats folded down, the liftback functions more or less like a small wagon in terms of storage, and you have NPR America’s ideal family car.

To sum: The Prius gets great gas mileage, doesn’t break down, is reasonably priced, fits toddlers easily, and has been cleverly marketed to its audience as a symbol of civic virtue. That’s the business proposition. No wonder Toyota has won.

But the Prius brand is hardly infallible. Thought the Prius will almost certainly to rule the hybrid landscape in our foreseeable lifetimes, it’s also almost certainly going to lose the electric race. The electric hybrid Prius plug-in model finished fourth in 2013 sales, well behind the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S. Of those four cars, the Prius gets the worst energy efficiency and is far and away the least fun to drive. It’s just a Prius that you also have to plug in sometimes. And that’s not what people want.