Reading the Detroit papers is absolutely necessary to cover the car companies; you never know quite what you'll find.

Today, it turns out that the Toyota Prius is actually a luxury-car substitute. Yep, that's right; many of you Prius owners out there traded in bigger, far more luxurious cars for your happy hybrids.

Audi, Lexus, BMW...and Prius by Flickr user 415monkey

Audi, Lexus, BMW...and Prius by Flickr user 415monkey

The source is no less than Jack Nerad, a market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "A lot of potential luxury car customers went into Prius," he's quoted as saying in today's Detroit News, in an article on how luxury brands are getting slammed by the current recession.

He attributes the decline to greater environmental concern, worries over the contribution of auto exhaust to greenhouse gases, and a general feeling that the planet's resources are dwindling. Not to mention that even the Prius and other not-so-pricey cars offer luxury items--navigation systems, leather upholstery, etc.--formerly restricted to the upper echelon.

Then Nerad drops a stunner: On average, Prius buyers earn more than $100,000, he says. That means many people who choose a Prius could have gotten something far fancier and flashier, but chose not to. Who knew?

Nerad goes on to slam the range of hybrids offered by Lexus, saying that they've "largely fallen flat."

Our opinion: That may be due to the fact that you have to work hard to ID a Lexus hybrid at 20 paces. Perhaps that trend will change now that Lexus is about to get its very own dedicated hybrid, the 2010 Lexus HS250h, which doesn't share styling with any other Lexus.

2009 Detroit auto show

2009 Detroit auto show

Perhaps not surprisingly, the luxury carmakers weren't buying it. "I don't have indications that our clientele would prefer to drive in small cars that are less safe and less comfortable," sniffed Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche in the article, waving his hand dismissively as he kicked a peasant and spat on the man's wife. (He had no doubt temporarily forgotten that in Europe, Mercedes-Benz sells the A-Class, a five-door hatchback far smaller than the Toyota Prius.)

In any case, Prius buyers: Rejoice, for you partake of the luxury of thrift--and can spend more of your hard-earned money on something other than gasoline. Gee, that sounds like luxury to us ....

[PHOTO of Prius in front of the Fairmont in the company of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz by Flickr user 415monkey]