Toyota Prius: Niche Car No More

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The Prius is now the world's third best-selling car.

Drivers around the globe purchased nearly a quarter million Toyota Priuses in the first quarter of 2012. That makes the Prius the world’s third best-selling car—and it firmly establishes the fact that this hybrid is not a fluke or a passing trend.

When the Prius hit the U.S. marketplace in 2000, it was a novelty. TIMEs early coverage of what was then a cutting-edge hybrid vehicle highlighted how the cars were anomalies on highways dominated by enormous, gas-guzzling SUVS:

The size of the Insight and Prius is a potential turnoff for consumers, who fear collisions with gargantuan SUVs. “I’d like to use less gas,” says Laura Blalock, a Memphis, Tenn., chemist. “But I can’t enjoy saving Mother Earth if I’m worrying about getting squashed like a bug.”

Nonetheless, the Prius emerged as a hit among a small subset of drivers. Hollywood A-listers including Cameron Diaz, Steven Spielberg, and Larry David were early adopters of the Prius. But celebrities are hardly known as the savviest of consumers, and in some ways the popularity of the Prius in southern California only gave further fuel to the idea that the car would never fly—or rather, drive—in the so-called heartland. Toyota easily sold out its small U.S. production run of 12,000 Priuses in 2000. But that’s teeny-tiny compared to, say, Ford, which sold roughly 70,000 F-Series trucks and 40,000 Explorers each month that year.

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Times have changed. Lately, Ford has been one of the automakers bragging about how small their engines are—because smaller engines equate to better fuel efficiency—and today’s best-selling SUVs are closer in size and design to sedans than they are to the prototypical SUV circa 2000.

And, as Bloomberg reports, the Toyota Prius now stands as the world’s third best-selling car, with 247,230 vehicles sold in the first quarter of 2012, coming behind only the Toyota Corolla (300,800) and Ford Focus (277,000). Prius sales have been helped by sales incentives in Japan, as well as a range of other factors, including higher gas prices, increased acceptability and familiarity with hybrid technology, and an expanded family of Prius models.

There are now four Prius models sold in the U.S., including the family-friendly wagon Prius V and the small economy Prius C. The latter retails starting under $19,000—which is actually cheaper than the cost of a Prius in 2000—and was a big hit when it went on the market earlier this year, selling 1,200 units in the first three days it was available. If there has been one thing holding back sales of electric vehicles and hybrids, it’s been the simple fact that they just cost too darn much to justify the potential savings in gasoline from owning one, so it’s impossible to overestimate how important it is for Toyota and other automakers to keep MSRPs down on these vehicles.

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Ultimately, the Prius has succeeded because drivers have done the math and, with government sales incentives, the history and projected future of gas prices, their own needs in a set of wheels, and perhaps even what’s best for Mother Nature are factored in, the car makes sense.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.