Why Toyota Will Sell 2012 Prius Plug-Ins: It's The Sticker, Stupid

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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, production model

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Reports say Toyota expects to sell as many as 15,000 of its 2012 Prius Plug-In Hybrid model per year in the United States.

But electric-car fans and advocates have vigorously debated whether the plug-in Prius is a "real" electric car, whether its 9 to 14 miles of electric range is adequate, and how much of an increase in gas mileage it delivers over the standard 50-mpg 2012 Prius hybrid.

None of that matters.

Toyota is likely to sell every single 2012 Prius Plug-In Hybrid it can deliver to California dealers for one simple reason.

It's about the stickers, stupid.

Put more politely, the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid is expected to qualify for the highly prized Clean Air Vehicle sticker in California that gives its driver access to High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes on certain crowded freeways in and around San Francisco and Los Angeles even when traveling solo.

That privilege--formerly extended to 75,000 owners of three specific hybrids, but now ended for those cars--turned out to add as much as $1,500 in value to the value of those hybrids in the used-car market against the same cars without the stickers.

So it's logical to expect that the 2012 Prius Plug-In, with a base price starting at $32,760 including destination, will enjoy the same popularity.

Traffic congestion remains grim in the state's two largest urban agglomerations, and time is money.

Right now, the only new cars that qualify for the white Clean Air sticker are the electric Nissan Leaf (with a range limited to 100 miles or so), the Tesla Roadster (starting at $109,000), and the tiny numbers of natural-gas Honda Civics and hydrogen fuel-cell Honda FCX Clarity models.

Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker -- flickr user jurvetson

Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker -- flickr user jurvetson

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So for drivers who are leery of the all-electric Leaf's limited range, but want solo driving in less-crowded HOV lanes, the Prius Plug-In is the easy, obvious, best-known solution.

And we predict there will be waiting lists for the car for many months as word gets out.

The one fly in the ointment? That would be plans by local transportation authorities to convert HOV lanes to tolled "Lexus lanes," in which drivers pay a variable fee for solo access to those same lanes.

Under those plans, electric-car drivers would pay the same tolls as any other solo driver--and they're not happy about it.

But for every other HOV lane in the crowded parts of California, expect to see lots and lots of Priuses starting next spring. They'll look just like regular 2012 Priuses, except for a second round door (for the charge port) on the right rear fender--and that invaluable green white carpool lane sticker on the bumper.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

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The 2012 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car does not qualify for California Advanced Technology-Partial Zero-Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) status, which would allow its drivers to get the same sticker--even though it runs electrically for up to 40 miles before the range-extending engine kicks in, unlike the Prius.

Although Chevy has said in the past it plans to qualify the Volt for the sticker, GM representatives refused to say when that would happen--or whether they would charge extra for AT-PZEV status in Volts destined for California and the other states that have adopted its emissions standards.

So who cares about plugging in? It's all about the sticker--even if Prius Plug-In drivers never once plug in their car.

Does that make sense to reduce emissions, which is the stated goal of the HOV access scheme? Oh, that's another story altogether.


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Comments (10)
  1. The California Clean Air Vehicle sticker for the qualifying plug-in hybrids will be a new green sticker, not the white sticker which is for electric, CNG, hydrogen, etc. cars.

  2. @CT: Right, I knew that. Doh. Thanks for pointing out the error, which I've corrected in the copy.

  3. I don't buy into this cynical view and wonder if there is a shred of evidence to support this proposition.

    All I know is we have large number of Priuses sold in Massachusetts that have never qualified for anything like HOV access, and only briefly qualified for government rebates. People actually bought them to help the environment. What do you know, people are actually capable of selfless acts.

  4. "What do you know, people are actually capable of selfless acts."
    Buying a car that gets better mileage than any other hardly qualifies as a "selfless act." It's called "saving money."

  5. :) fair enough. Actually harder to find a truly selfless act isn't it.

  6. John, after reading your article "Electric-Car Owners To Lose If CA Carpool Lanes Get Tolls?" buying a Plug-in Prius may prove moot at best. Frankly the electric-only range is pitifully marginal; with hilly CA roads and/or on colder winter days I wonder if even 9 miles will be achieved!

  7. @Trudee: Thus far, only two sections of HOV lanes, on I-10 and I-110 in southern California, are being tolled as a test. We'll see whether the idea spreads. As for the range issue, the Prius Plug-In will switch on its engine whenever it needs to, including within that 9 to 15 mile range. But "winter" in most parts of CA is warmer than winter in upstate NY, where I got the 9-mile figure on a prototype Prius Plug-In. As for hills, remember, you can regain some of the range via regenerative braking on the way down!

  8. I am sensing a lot of exasperation in the articles here and at ABG. It seems everyone is impatient for the alternative fuel / propulsion vehicle revolution to occur, when I've always realized it will take decades, simply because the cost of the tech will only drop slowly over the next two decades, not next few years. Until costs drop, it is tough to make any case, other than inevitability, for these vehicles, and that it is better to transition sooner, rather than later.

  9. @Jason: Hmmmmm. I'm not aware of any exasperation on my part, though we do often craft headlines to grab attention. :) But my goal with this one was to point out that at least in California, there's a clear, four-figure financial value placed on solo access to the HOV lane (which translates into time saved by the driver). So some cars (initially the 3 hybrids, now the Prius plug-in and in due course, other plug-in hybrids or BEVs) will be bought for that reason as well as/instead of the ones more usually attributed to plug-in purchases: payback and/or desire to be more "green". All that said, I pretty much agree with the rest of your comment. FWIW ...

  10. Well today GCR seems exasperated

    "Just Build It Already! 5 Green Cars We're Still Waiting For"

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