- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2007

Sales of Toyota hybrid vehicles passed 1 million last month, the Japanese company said yesterday, with more than half of those in the U.S.

Through May, the automaker sold a total of 1.047 million hybrids, including 344,600 in Japan, since its first hybrid model, the Prius, was introduced in 1997.

Toyota is clearly ahead of the pack in hybrids,” Tsuyoshi Mochimaru, auto analyst with Deutsche Securities in Tokyo, told the Associated Press.

In May, when gasoline levels nationwide reached an average of $3.22 for a gallon of regular, Toyota posted sales of 36,101 hybrids, up 102 percent from a year earlier. The Toyota division sold 34,174 hybrid cars, while its Lexus division sold 1,927.

The Prius relies on a system of switching between a gas engine and an electric motor that delivers superior mileage. The car gets 55 miles a gallon on combined city and highway driving conditions.

The company anticipates combined sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids to be a quarter million in the U.S. this year, said Jim Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

The strong sales for Toyota hybrids come as tax credits from the IRS have decreased. Since Oct. 1, the tax credit for such vehicles began to be reduced because 60,000 Toyota hybrids had been sold. Now, Toyota customers may claim 50 percent of the credit.

The tax credit reached as high as $3,150 for the Toyota Prius before Toyota reached the 60,000 level.

David Reynolds, general sales manager at Alexandria Toyota, said sales of the Prius have been particularly high. They increased 50 percent in May from the same period last year, while sales of the dealership’s best-selling cars, the Corolla and Camry, have slightly increased, he said.

“I haven’t seen an increase on a car [that has a sales history] in a long time,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Mr. Reynolds expects sales to keep increasing, especially if gas continues to rise and customers start realizing that there is no waiting list for the Prius. Customers generally are less likely to buy a car if they can’t have it right away, he said.

Other Toyota hybrids have posted sales increases said Brian Ham, sales manager of Bill Page Toyota in Falls Church. But while the sales of the Prius have at least doubled, sales of the Toyota Camry and Highlander sport utility vehicle hybrids have not kept pace.

“Camry and Highlander hybrids get better gas mileage than gas cars, but the Prius is more focused on gas mileage, so people are more likely to go to that,” Mr. Ham said.

But not all hybrids are selling well. Honda Motor Co. said earlier this week that it will discontinue the hybrid versions of the Accord sedans, which sold poorly.

The popularity of hybrid cars, among other factors, have helped changed the rules about high-occupancy lanes in Maryland and Virginia.

In Maryland, hybrid cars are no longer able to use the high-occupancy lanes, which are used by carpools of two or more. A combination of more hybrid cars and more travel with multiple people have caused too much congestion in the lanes, said Chris Rice, transportation program manager for the Maryland Energy Administration.

In Virginia, hybrid drivers on Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road can use high-occupancy lanes if they have a clean-fuel plate obtained through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But on Interstates 395 and 95, there have been so many hybrids that only drivers who secured a plate before July 1, 2006, can use the lanes. These rules will expire July 1, 2008, said Joan Morris, public affairs representative for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Although two or three years away, once high-occupancy toll lanes are set up on the two interstates, no hybrid cars will be able to use them for free, she added.

Hybrid cars, aside from saving gas, are known to reduce tailpipe emissions. Hybrids have saved nearly 215 million gallons of fuel in the U.S. since being introduced in 1999, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Another study from the Argonne National Laboratory found that the total lifetime energy use of hybrid vehicles is significantly lower than conventional vehicles. Total lifetime energy use includes the periods from development to end-of-life recycling.

Although high gas prices and the benefits of hybrids have helped sales growth, Mr. Reynolds said the fact that people are getting used to the cars has also helped.

“I think people are comfortable with the technology,” he said. “They know it works, they know it’s a regular car and that you’re not going to see a big difference when you’re driving it.”

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