Why Can't U.S. Buyers Get Hybrid Toyota Yaris & Honda Fit?

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2012 Toyota Prius C, drive event, La Jolla, CA, Feb 2012

2012 Toyota Prius C, drive event, La Jolla, CA, Feb 2012

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Both Toyota and Honda are hybrid pioneers.

Both companies sell subcompact gasoline models (the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit) and separate subcompact hybrid models (the Toyota Prius C and Honda Insight).

What most U.S. buyers don't know is that those companies also sell hybrid versions of the Yaris and Fit. They sell well in Japan--but the companies have no intention of bringing them to the States.

Why? According to a Toyota executive who asked to remain anonymous, it has to do with the differences between how drivers in the U.S. and the rest of the world travel, and small-car aerodynamics.

While this is one man's unconfirmed account, it explains a question that had always puzzled us. Here's what he said.

More high-speed highway

In short, European and Japanese buyers not only travel shorter distances in their cars, they do so at slower speeds. With older cities and relatively less U.S.-style suburban sprawl, those drivers spend more time in stop-and-go traffic--and a lot less time on the highway.

2012 Toyota Yaris Hybrid

2012 Toyota Yaris Hybrid

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In the U.S., we think nothing of hopping in our cars to travel 100 miles or more. Elsewhere, gasoline is double the price, and mass transit is an accepted alternative--often even the default.

Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, frequent, and quick. They're used by all segments of society. And the price against the cost of gasoline and tolls is a much better match than in the States.

Aerodynamic drag counts

That means that highway fuel efficiency weighs less on the mind of many non-U.S. buyers than does city fuel economy. That's where aerodynamics comes in.

Both the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius C have lower drag coefficients than the Fit Hybrid and Yaris Hybrid, respectively. That puts less strain on their smaller, less powerful gasoline engines at highway speeds--improving gas mileage.

According to our Toyota source, in real-world use, the Yaris Hybrid would have delivered unacceptably low highway mileage for U.S. buyers.

(The gas mileage of the all-new 2012 Yaris is only average, mind you.)

2012 Honda Insight EX with Navigation

2012 Honda Insight EX with Navigation

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As it is, the 2012 Toyota Prius C hybrid subcompact gets 53 mpg city, but only 47 mpg highway.

Not only does it have a smaller engine, but it's less aerodynamic than the longer Toyota Prius liftback model--which is taller, heavier, more powerful, and more spacious, but gets the same combined 50-mpg rating.

It's particularly hard to make short cars aerodynamically efficient. The ideal aero shape is a teardrop, and if you chop too much off the tail of the tear, you increase drag.

Brand-new cars vs hybrid options

In other words, both Honda and Toyota incurred the extra expense of developing a brand-new dedicated hybrid vehicle (using elements of their existing subcompact platforms) largely to deliver the right balance of gas-mileage figures.

Has it worked?

Honda Fit Hybrid

Honda Fit Hybrid

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In Honda's case, arguably not. The gasoline Honda Fit, now several years into its model run, is still one of the better subcompacts, with unparalleled interior versatility.

And despite a mild refresh for the 2012 Insight, sales of Honda's smallest hybrid model have been far below projections.

The 2012 Toyota Prius C, however, is off to a successful start globally, with strong sales in the U.S., in Japan, and around the world.

Here, it has both the strength of the Prius name and, with its battery under the rear seat, a full-size rear load bay--unlike the Insight, which has its battery under the load deck.

Which do you prefer?

In fact, the Prius family has become the third best-selling car line in the world this year.

So if you like the looks of the Yaris more than the Prius C ... too bad. If you want a subcompact hybrid from Toyota, it's the Prius C or nothing.

What do you think? Would you prefer a Yaris Hybrid to a Prius C, or a Honda Fit Hybrid over an Insight?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (10)
  1. LEAF has been called a compact car here (and subcompact in many other places) when it really is classified as mid-size. Now, the compact Prius C is referenced as subcompact (when it's right in the compact category) in the article. It's not hard to look them up, so why???

  2. Jan,
    I wondered about this too. But it looks like Toyota calls the Prius C a subcompact.
    John C. Briggs

  3. @Jan: Good Q. Toyota calls the Prius C a subcompact, in part because it's based on a modified Yaris platform. We went with that because we think consumers will see the Prius C as more comparable to a Yaris hatchback than the compact Matrix hatchback.

    I don't think we've ever called the Leaf a subcompact, but we'll plead guilty to calling it a compact.

    However, there are severe drawbacks to using the NHTSA interior-volume dimensions to categorize cars, as you do. For instance:

  4. The Honda Fit is the best looking of the bunch. I don't think the Prius C looks very good, but at 53 mpg city it is the most efficient non-plugin available.

  5. Im not sure I buy the explanation, but I would buy a Honda Fit hybrid in a minute. I have a 2004 Honda Civic hybrid that I bought new and is still running well at 102K. I am ready for my next car, but have been hoping Honda imports the Fit (Jazz) hybrid. I would even prefer the regular Fit to an Insight due to the versatility, looks and practicality of the Fit design and cargo space. I believe that Honda believes it will lose money importing the Fit hybrid to the US due to the yen and also may further dilute the Insight's sales.

    News Flash to Honda:
    The Insight is a sales failure. Phase is out and replace it with the Fit hybrid. There are thousands of US buyers waiting for it to happen!

  6. As the owner of a 2010 Honda Fit who commutes 45 miles each way to work, I've found my Fit to be incredible for hauling almost anything, and I have gotten over 40 MPG combined city/hwy with it when I drive it correctly and the weather cooperates. At the price differential, it's a huge bargain for anyone.

  7. I would like to know who is driving all these alleged highway miles? There is plenty of data out there showing average commute speeds of well under 40mph (e.g. http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~pgordon/pdf/commuting.pdf)
    I am suspicious that emphasis on highway MPG has more to do with marketing than reality. I hate it when I see a car advertised as "36mpg" when its real-world city MPG is more like 17.
    When you're on the highway and traffic is stop-and-go, guess what -- it's the city MPG that's more relevant.
    I would like to see efficiency optimized in a given car _class_. This is starting to happen with mid-size sedans, with the Camry, Fusion, and Sonata all offering excellent city MPG.

  8. I think Toyota has done well with the design of the Prius C. Honda, on the other hand, missed a good opportunity with the Fit. The Fit would be great as a hybrid and an Si option. Honda needs to find some direction.

  9. I'm surprised that this article didn't discuss the other "missing" hybrid vehicles in the the North American Market, the Mini-Vans! I have ridden in the Toyota Estima once, and it was a wonderful van. When are we going to have larger cars that are more family friendly?

  10. I have owned 11 fits in the last 4 years. My mother drives one, my wife drives one and I drive one. I am 6'5" tall and a big person. It is the easiest car I have ever gotten into. The headroom is unbelievable. It sits 3 in the back and their knees dont tough the front seat. I live in the country but I really like the mileage. My 2012 now has about 14000 and the mileage readout on the dash says 42.8/mpg. Great long distance travel car. Drive 1600 to florida with ease. No repairs on any of the cars we have purchased. 16 " tires, for low wear. The car absolutely amazes me. People dont believe the room in it until they get in. Come on Honda, bring on the fit hybrid. Look it up. Cost per mile with the fit beats the prius (5 yr)

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