2017 Toyota Prius Prime, Catskill Mountains, NY, Nov 2016
In Toyota's latest ad for its new Corolla Hybrid in Britain, it's 2002 all over again.
The ad shows the new Corolla Hybrid (in non-U.S. hatchback form) bypassing all kinds of road transportation alternatives from different eras—from a stagecoach and an early brass-era car to 1950s hot rods and, finally—an electric car plugged in and charging by the side of the road.
It's clearly a dig at plug-in cars, reliant on battery power and electric motors to get around. Plug-ins are even more popular in Britain, with its high gas prices, than they are in the U.S.
Yet Toyota is the company that paved the way for modern electric cars, the first to take electric propulsion seriously when it introduced the Prius in 2000 (and in 1998 in its home market.)
When it debuted, the original Prius, and especially the second-generation that followed in 2002, was the first vehicle that revealed a hidden market of millions of buyers who hungered to do better by the Earth. Along the way, as more and more people became familiar with it, the Prius demonstrated to drivers that electric power is smoother and quieter than gas.
Many Prius drivers wanted nothing more than to be able to plug in to maximize the number of miles they could drive on "nicer" electricity.
Of course, electricity is also far more efficient and cleaner than gasoline—as the Prius amply demonstrated by trouncing the fuel-efficiency estimates of similar compact economy cars such as the Corolla. That's what Prius buyers love.
Even ordinary electric cars, however, such as the Nissan Leaf, from one of Toyota's longest-standing competitors, get almost double the fuel-economy rating of even the best versions of the Prius.
Yet, even as it demonstrated the market for driving on electricity, Toyota became famously skeptical of cars that used more electricity—and even less gas—by plugging in.
When Toyota introduced the second-generation Prius for 2003 and captured the environmental movement's attention, it seemed to think buyers would be skeptical of plugging in. Prius ads at the time touted that "you never have to plug it in," as if that were a feature, and buyers might be terrified of a car that needed electricity to run. That may have been fair in an era when few people had experienced electric cars, and almost none knew how they might charge one.
The company famous for responding to its buyers' demands later dragged its feet in introducing a plug-in version of the Prius, which it first discussed in 2007 and showed in 2008. Toyota didn't introduce the first Prius plug-in until 2012—two years after an independent company began selling thousands of unauthorized conversion kits—and even then, it had only 11 miles of electric range. A 2014 ad for the car showed the Prius Plug-In Hybrid...not plugging in.
It took until 2016 for Toyota to introduce the Prius Prime, with a realistic 25 miles of electric range—after five years of losing sales to the Chevrolet Volt plug in hybrid and a new crop of all-electric cars, including the Leaf.
Toyota executives made all kinds of excuses along the way about the cost, emissions, and "inconvenience" of electricity, and how Americans' driving cycles didn't favor electric driving. Meanwhile, in Japan, Toyota engineers, with subsidies from the government, focused on developing fuel-cell vehicles, and the company has now sold a few thousand fuel-cell Mirais in California.
If the Prius proved anything, it was that using an electric motor and battery to offset the worst inefficiencies of an internal combustion car was not only extremely effective, it should be the minimum best practice for any new car model.
Now that electric car sales are booming and the Prius Prime makes up more than 30 percent of Prius sales, it's disappointing to see Toyota falling back on that old trope that charging is inconvenient and ineffective in its latest ad for the Corolla Hybrid. And that market of millions of buyers who want to do right by the environment have already begun looking elsewhere.