Toyota Prius Sales Surge

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Toyota (NYSE: TM) said its U.S. car sales rose faster than expected in February and that March sales are off to a strong start. Much of the credit, the company said, goes to demand for its hybrid Prius. Sales of all models of the car were up 52% last month. Gas prices seem to have tipped the scale to high-mileage car demand. And so the remarkable history of the Prius continues.

The Prius was the first mass market hybrid, launched in Japan in 1997 and in the U.S. in 2001. Toyota says it has sold well over 3 million units of the car worldwide. The Prius is now into its third generation of production. Almost every other large auto manufacturer in the world has released hybrids. The success of the Prius has prompted a surge in hybrid models.

Part of the huge demand for the Prius, some critics would say, is because the Japanese earthquake interrupted supply. That may be true, but gas prices must be another cause. The three Prius models get over 40 MPG on average for city and highway driving. If gas reaches $5 a gallon, compare that figure to a regular car engine which gets 20 MPG and the difference in what a driver spends on fuel over the course of a year in which he drives 15,000 miles could be well over $1,000. That is a significant burden for a typical U.S. household with a median income of just over $50,000 a year before taxes.

Hybrids, and more recently electric cars, have been considered toys by many American drivers. And they can be expensive ones because some cost more than comparable gas engine vehicles. These “toys” are about to get extremely attractive.

Douglas A. McIntyre