Toyota’s ‘Geek-Mobile’ Prius Hybrid Hits 1 Million Mark in U.S. Deliveries

Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid auto, hit a U.S. milestone with cumulative sales in that market reaching 1 million vehicles as a supply disruption looms following Japan’s record earthquake.

Sales of the gasoline-electric hatchback, first sold in the U.S. in 2000, reached the volume goal on April 5, Toyota said late yesterday at a conference in La Jolla, California. On April 1, the company said it only had an 18-day supply of the Prius for U.S. dealers, due to increased demand because of rising fuel prices and reduced shipments from Japan following last month’s earthquake and tsunami.

“As we see fuel prices starting to rise again, it has accounted for more than 60 percent of hybrid passenger cars so far this year,” Bob Carter, group vice president of Toyota’s U.S. sales unit, said in a statement.

Demand for the Prius, rated by the U.S. government as delivering a combined 50 miles per gallon in city and highway driving, typically tracks U.S. gasoline prices, jumping when fuel costs rise and falling as pump prices dip. In the first three months of 2011, U.S. sales of the Prius grew 51 percent to 42,779, more than the Toyota City, Japan-based company sold in the same period of 2007, its best year ever for the car.

U.S. gasoline prices have risen 20 percent since the start of the year to an average of $3.69 a gallon as of April 4, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge report.

Toyota rose 0.2 percent to 3,265 yen as of the 3 p.m. close of trading in Tokyo. The stock has lost 11 percent since March 10, the day before the temblor.

‘Geek-Mobile’

Production of the Prius in Japan stopped after the 9- magnitude quake and resumed last week at the company’s Tsutsumi plant. Toyota hasn’t said how quickly it will be able to make up the lost production.

Following the start of U.S. sales of the Prius early this decade, the car’s cost relative to conventional gasoline-engine autos and its complexity were criticized by executives including the former General Motors Corp.’s Bob Lutz and Nissan Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn, who suggested it didn’t make economic sense for most consumers.

Dan Akerson, GM’s chief executive, told reporters at a December 2010 briefing in Washington that the Prius is a “geek- mobile,” and that he “wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius,” according to a report by the Associated Press.

Volt, Leaf

“I guess there are a lot of geeks out there,” Toyota’s Carter said in a March 3 interview.

Late last year, GM began selling its plug-in hybrid Volt sedan and Nissan added the all-electric Leaf hatchback, seeking to displace the Prius as the vehicle of choice for consumers seeking to curb gasoline consumption and emissions linked to global warming.

U.S. sales of the Volt this year through March totaled 1,210 cars, while Nissan delivered just 452 Leafs to U.S. drivers.

While Toyota has added several hybrid sedans and light- truck models in the U.S. and Japan, none have sold in volume approaching that of the Prius, said Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab, an industry research company in Orange, California.

“The success of the Prius is ephemeral enough that it has so far eluded competitors -- and even Toyota itself,” Noble said in an interview. “The car is probably the most studied model line in the industry of the past 10 years.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles at aohnsman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kae Inoue at kinoue@bloomberg.net

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