I’m not here to tell you that the Prius has amazing throttle response, or knife-edge handling, or sparking steering that speaks to you while carving your favorite mountain pass. I’m not here to say that the Prius puts you back in your seat (even though the new one does make 220 horsepower). But I’m here to say that, like it or not, the Prius has become an enthusiast vehicle. You only have to look at its declining sales to know what I mean.
I also don’t want to say that the Prius sucks to drive. I’ve logged thousands of miles on a few different Pre’s, and many of them with a wry smile on my face, absolutely dropping the car down some country two-lane. The Prius is fun to drive in spite of itself. You know there is no power. You know there is no hope that the engine will do anything at any given time. Even if you nailed the perfect timing to lay on the throttle coming out of a hairpin turn, the CVT would turn the engine into a fuzzy car that wouldn’t go forward/split. So you slam your foot on the floor at the right moment to somewhere-ish and figure things out from there. It’s a different kind of driving than a Porsche, but it’s passionate driving nonetheless.
The new one, even, is strangely handsome. It has the fastest-looking windshield on sale, reclining and extending, turning the car into a flying egg. It is an efficient shape. For a while in the seventies, car designers thought all cars would have such aerodynamic wedges, and Lamborghini sold the world on the Countach and Ferrari 512BB. It wasn’t until the 1990s that sports cars started to get deliberately retro again, behind cars like the Porsche Boxster and Ferrari 550.
I’m getting off point. The Prius is not a driver’s car; It’s something different though, it’s a car that’s only bought by people who absolutely positively must have the most efficient, gas-sipping, eco-friendly car. A Prius buyer has enthusiasm, which is what we usually talk about when we power slide a Miata or see how late braking is in a Dodge Challenger.
Let me set a scene for you. It’s 2009. Half the people you know are laid off, gas prices are out of control, and you need a car that gets the best gas mileage you can. Let’s say 50 MPG. You can get a Honda insight, if you can live with only two seats. You can get a Jio Metro if you can live with spending a few thousand dollars on a used hatchback that cost a few hundred dollars a year ago. Or you get a Prius. The only thing around that is livable, practical, and fuel-efficient at the level we now associate with hybrids.
The scenario in 2022 is very different. If you want a simple car that gets hybrid-level mileage, the RAV4 Hybrid is sitting right in front of you at a Toyota dealership. Same goes for any dealership—if there’s a major automaker that doesn’t offer a hybrid crossover, I don’t know it, and neither does the American car-buying public. Hell, Jeep sells a plug-in hybrid Wrangler. The smallest Ford pickup starts as a hybrid, standard. Prius is not the car it used to be.
Sales back that up. In 2012 and 2013 combined, Toyota sold nearly half a million Prius models ranging from the small C to the large V. Toyota moved half that number across ’08 and ’09 together, but those were recession years. Since ’13, however, Prius sales have declined, falling to 59,010 in 2021, a quarter off the one-year high of 2013, as noted by CarSalesBase.
It’s not just other hybrids that are pushing the Prius out of the minds of gas-conscious buyers. The Prius now competes in an all-electric market that is completely different from the world of the Oats or the early twenties. Tesla delivered 121,610 Model 3s to customers in 2021, as CarSalesBase catalogs. The Prius isn’t even the most quality-signalled eco car you can buy anymore. And EVs aren’t even that exotic-y. Volkswagen will sell you an ID.4, Ford will sell you a Mach-E.
So who are the last Americans buying a Prius? They are people who want a Prius. They want a car that gets great mileage no matter how they drive it, even though they know they can play with those stats if they hypermile it a bit. Letting off the gas on long descents, applying the throttle from a stoplight, teasing the car as far as possible before the gas engine kicks in. If you go by these sales figures alone, there are about 60,000 people who fit this mold anymore. Is it such a surprise? It is a five-door hatchback, after all! No one buys a five-door hatch! We now live in a crossover country. Toyota doesn’t even make the new generation model in silver, or slate blue like my parents’ car yellow Nobody sells yellow cars these days! It is not the seventies! Prius is weird. This is a car that is never bought by accident. A purchase is a choice.
If I needed a new car, I would make that choice too. A Prius is spacious, practical, quiet, and does everything I want from a car, as long as I don’t need to drive it off-road. I can sleep in it. I can throw a few bikes on it. A table, a few desks, some more boxes, cabinets, whatever I have to carry, a Prius swallows. It would even get 50-odd miles per gallon, no matter how hard I drove it.