Remember when the Toyota Prius was truly a halo vehicle?
Especially in the late aughts, the Prius met that definition in the best possible way. The humble, socially conscious image booster was popular among very, very wealthy Americans—the types who might otherwise have Porsches in the garage. From Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks to Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Alba, being seen in a Prius was basically a right of passage for Hollywood’s top stars, pro sports stars, and other celebrities aiming to flaunt environmentally conscious (and socially conscious) credibility.
SF 49er Jeff Ulbrich and his 2008 Toyota Prius
Before Tesla, it was the Toyota Prius that held that special place. It elevated Toyota from being just a pragmatic choice to one that was innovative and progressive. And the glow of that halo reflected at least to some level on its whole lineup.
Toyota appears to have held onto some of its luster with Hollywood A-listers even until now, although the claims behind an Axios report today appear to be dissolving any last glimmers of star power for the Prius.
I’ve always owned a Prius gotta change that now.— ✌rosanna arquette (@RoArquette) June 28, 2021
The report, drawing from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) findings, revealed that Toyota maintained a strong lead among corporate PACs donating to election objectors.
Toyota was listed as giving $55,000 to 37 objectors—although it didn’t give it any context, such as with how much (or how many donations) Toyota had given during that same period to other political interests.
The report prompted cries for a boycott, as well of some very high-profile contempt from celebrities. Billy Baldwin and Rosanna Arquette were among an increasingly long list of noteworthy celebrities with large followings who revealed they still had a Prius (or in Baldwin’s case, a Prius Prime) and planned on dumping it after this piece of news.
The Prius has already been fading as an image vehicle—partly due to some of the decisions Toyota itself has made in recent years. One of them was to publicly oppose California’s emissions rules—even after GM, one of the other detractors, had dropped its resistance and made an all-electric “aspiration.”
2020 Toyota Prius Prime Limited
While GM dropped its opposition later in November, after Trump had no possible victory path in the electoral college, Toyota didn’t drop its push against California until after the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Now Toyota faces a number of uphill image battles. One of them is in its strategy toward EVs, with the automaker saying that it isn’t anti-BEV but presenting plans that only have it selling about as many EVs by 2030 as regulators are likely to require. Another is the optics of these donations.
Toyota’s first mass-produced EV is due to arrive next year. Does this affect how you see the Toyota badge, or are these celebrities and others overreacting? We'd appreciate your thoughts below—as nonpartisan as possible, please.