Toyota Hybrids Sale Hits 1 Million

by : Zeke Gervis

A decade since the first Prius hit the market (in Japan) Toyota's global sales of hybrid vehicles have now reached a landmark 1 million, highlighting the giant Japanese automaker's lead in "green" technology that has changed the face of the auto industry.

In a statement released Thursday last week, Toyota says it has sold 577,311 gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles in the USA from mid-2000, when it launched the Prius here, through May. Toyota's worldwide sales of gas-and-electric-powered vehicles totaled 1.047 million as of the end of May. Nearly 345,000 of those were sold in Japan.

Sales of Toyota hybrids have climbed from 18,000 in 1998 to 312,500 last year, the company said.

Demand for hybrids, which deliver superior mileage by switching between a gasoline engine and electric motor, has soared amid higher fuel prices and greater consumer concern about pollution and global warming.

Toyota's dominance in the category has caused Detroit's automakers to follow with their own versions and to depend less on lower-mileage SUVs as the main engine for their profits.

The Prius is the hands-down leader in the category, with a total of 757,600 units sold since its 1997 introduction in Japan. Toyota began selling the Prius in North America, Europe and other places in 2000. Last year, the model made up an amazing more than 40 percent of hybrid sales in the U.S.

The Prius, which gets 55 miles a gallon on combined city and highway driving conditions, has been enormously popular as a mid-size sedan, a best-selling vehicle category.

Although most automakers are now working on hybrids, Toyota has the advantage of almost 10 years of experience in selling the technology, as well as in using feedback from drivers to make improvements, rather than relying on information from labs.

Toyota believes hybrid technology is the way of the future. It offers several other hybrid models, including the hybrid Camry and hybrid Lexus models.

"Hybrids will play a key role throughout our lineup," Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said. "That means all vehicle categories."

The company also started domestic sales of its most expensive hybrid, the 15 million yen - or about $124,000 at current exchange rates - Lexus LS 600h, which is also equipped with top of the line Lexus parts like the . It will be exported over the summer, according to Toyota.

Not all hybrids however, enjoy the fortune like Toyota. Earlier this week, Honda Motor Co. said it will discontinue the hybrid version of its Accord sedans, which sold poorly because it didn't fit the customer demand profile of the smallest, least expensive hybrids with the highest gas mileage.

Meanwhile, hybrid sport-utility vehicles have struggled in sales compared to the Prius, partly because an SUV doesn't have a green image to start with, according to analysts.

Sales of Toyota's RX400h hybrid SUV, sold as the Harrier in Japan, have reached 85,000 worldwide since it was introduced in 2005. Another hybrid SUV, the Highlander, or Kluger in Japan, has sold 67,000 over the same period.

The Prius, by contrast, has sold 478,800 units since the start of 2005.

Among American automakers, Ford Motor Co. offers the hybrid Escape sport-utility vehicle and General Motors Corp. sells the hybrid Saturn Vue Green Line sport-utility vehicle and hybrid trucks.

New hybrids are also reportedly in the works for GM this year - the automaker has promised four: two-mode gas-electric systems in the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon large sport utility vehicles, and hybrid systems for the Saturn Aura and new Chevrolet Malibu sedans.

The next innovation in hybrids is expected to come from a new type of battery, called the lithium-ion battery, which will be smaller and lighter than the nickel-metal hydride batteries Toyota now uses for its hybrids.

A major breakthrough is needed to switch to lithium-ion batteries, now widely used in laptops, to make them power cars.

Mitsuo Kinoshita, a senior Toyota executive, has reportedly told reporters that the Japanese automaker was still working on developing a lithium-ion battery system for the next-generation Prius.