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. The Prius is "a pop culture item," says Bob Carter, Toyota's North American senior vice-president of operations, having been featured on South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie, among others.
Carter calls the South Park TV episode "a badge of honour." As well, having celebrities – Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and others – piloting one doesn't hurt its image, either. During the 2006 Academy Awards ceremonies, 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 the Toyota/Lexus lineup and altogether the company has sold five million hybrid vehicles worldwide. Describing the first Prius as an "odd little bundle," Carter claims that the hybrids sold by Toyota have saved three billion gallons of gas that would otherwise have been guzzled up by less fuel-efficient cars, while preventing 34 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the environment.
It wasn't always an easy sell. 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," says Geri Yoza, Toyota's national business planning manager. "We had to create a community."
And that's exactly what happened. Relying heavily on then-fresh Internet marketing, Toyota had a backlog of orders for the Prius one year after it was launched and today 70 per cent of all hybrid models sold around the globe are a Toyota product. The Prius accounts for more than 16 per cent 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 more than half a million of them. In Canada, Toyota has sold more than 85,000, where it's available in four different varieties. In what may be the highest recommendation of all, the Prius is the overwhelming taxi cab of choice in many Canadian cities. Some science project.
Toyota says hybrid technology is now a "halo" for the company and it has taken it on the road to tell the world with the "Toyota Hybrid World Tour." Ironically, the tour landed in the shadow of Motown, in Ypsilanti, Mich. – about a half-hour's drive from the wreckage that is now Detroit.
On hand were familiar faces – the entire Prius line, the Lexus CT200h, RX450h and ES300h – as well as models sold elsewhere: the Yaris Hybrid, Aurius Hybrid and Alfard minivan. Not to mention a couple of fuel-cell-powered Highlanders (cost: $1-million apiece) and one of Toyota's hybrid LeMans entries, which competed in this year's contest and took home a podium finish. This is a company that has embraced hybrid technology and sees no end in sight.
So what does the future hold for the world's biggest hybrid manufacturer?
We can expect to see a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are smaller, with better charge-holding capabilities, says Satoshi Ogiso, Toyota's chief managing officer. Also, 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 you will one day be able to recharge your plug-in without having to actually plug in. A remote charging unit located underground will replenish the vehicle's batteries simply by parking the car over it. We may see some of these features by 2015, promises Ogiso. Also in the works: a hybrid pickup truck and more fuel-cell prototypes.
There may also be a new hybrid model coming to Canada. The Aurius, which is sold in the United Kingdom as either a hatchback or sleek estate wagon, shares many components with the Lexus CT200h, which is in the Lexus lineup here. Toyota says there are many things about the Aurius that would be "significant" for the Canadian market. Toyota is a company that plays its cards close to the chest, but we could see the Aurius here within a year.
"Hybrid technology was once described as 'bridge technology,'" says Carter. "If this is the case, it's a very long bridge."