For several years, Toyota has had the "dedicated hybrid" market all to itself. That means a hybrid-electric vehicle like the Prius that doesn't share its styling with any non-hybrid line (unlike, say, the Camry Hybrid, which is just a variant of the gasoline-only Camry).
Since the demise of Honda's original (1999-2006) two-seater Insight, the Prius has been the sole dedicated hybrid in the U.S. That will change in April, when Honda's new 2010 Insight goes on sale in the U.S. at a price of $20,000 or less--making it the cheapest hybrid on the market.
Like the Prius (and the 2011 Chevrolet Volt too, for that matter), the new 2010 Insight is a five-door hatchback with a high roofline and an abruptly cut-off tail. Most important, the Insight (rated at 40/43 mpg for city/highway) has been informally reported to get Prius levels of fuel economy--from 40 to as much as 60 miles per gallon at times--from a smaller, lighter, and cheaper mild hybrid system. In Japan, Honda sold 10,000 new Insights in 10 days, more than twice its sales goal for the entire month.
2009 Honda Insight - production version first photo.
In a plummeting economy, with new car purchases down 40 percent, might an "almost-as-good" hybrid with a much lower list price be a big threat to the Prius?
Toyota apparently thinks so. To make its ambitious goal of 180,000 Prius sales in 2010, it's rumored to be hanging onto the old (second-generation) Prius for the Japanese market, even as it rolls out the third-generation 2010 Prius.
The idea is that the old Prius would be "de-contented"--which means stripping down the features to cut cost--to serve as a bare-bones, less expensive alternative to the 2010 Insight. The goal is to get the price close to the Insight's $20,000 level.
Honda occupies a solid second place in hybrids, having just achieved total sales of 300,000 worldwide--against Toyota's total of five times that number. But Honda remains the company with the highest overall fuel economy in North America, and its "less is more" philosophy may be perfectly in tune with the times.
So: If you could choose among the new 2010 Prius, a cheaper stripped-down version of the 2009 Prius, and the 2010 Insight ... which one rings your bells? Soon you may have the chance to find out.
2010 Toyota Prius