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Toyota Prius Dominates California as State’s No. 1 Model

Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)’s Prius hybrid passed Honda Motor Co.’s Civic and Accord to become the best- selling vehicle line this year in California as higher gasoline prices drove up demand for fuel-efficient cars.

Toyota, the world’s largest seller of gasoline-electric autos, sold 46,380 Prius models to Golden State drivers in the first nine months of the year, the California New Car Dealers Association said in its California Auto Outlook report. That vaulted the Prius three levels above last year, when it ranked behind the Civic, Accord and Toyota’s own Camry.

Recovering car and light-truck sales in California, the nation’s largest auto market, are lifting sales across the U.S. Registrations through September are up 26 percent in California, exceeding the 14.5 percent increase for U.S. light-vehicle sales, according to the report.

“Gas prices are up 80 cents per gallon in California over the national average,” said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, California. “That’s really driving up the appeal of hybrids, as well as plug-in vehicles in California.”

Drivers in the state bought 1.25 million new cars and trucks this year through September, according to the report. That would be 11 percent of the U.S. total of 10.9 million. Purchases of Prius models this year in California account for 25 percent of the 183,340 Prius liftbacks, plug-ins, v wagons and c subcompacts sold in the U.S.

Price Surge

Ford Motor Co. (F)’s F-Series pickup trucks are the top-selling vehicle line across the U.S. this year, followed by Camry, according to researcher Autodata Corp. Nationally, Prius is only the 12th best-seller among all vehicle types this year, and seventh by sales volume among car models, according to Autodata figures.

The hybrid, first sold in Japan 1997, hasn’t previously led sales in the state, based on California Auto Outlook reports back through 2006.

Disruptions at state refineries since August pushed gasoline in the state to a record $4.67 a gallon on Oct. 9, according to AAA. While prices in California have eased, the fuel averaged $4.55 a gallon on Oct. 17, compared with a national average of $3.74, based on data from the largest U.S. motorists’ group.

“Prius is going to stay strong through 2012, and into 2013,” Gutierrez said. “We’re going to get some relief at the pump, but not that much.”

U.S. Prius sales, already at a record this year, may total as many as 230,000, Toyota U.S. Group Vice President Bill Fay said this month. Honda’s CR-V is California’s best-selling light truck this year, according to the report, based on data compiled by Experian Automotive.

Buyer Consideration

Prius demand has “been consistently strong all year,” said Don Mushin, general manager of Toyota of Hollywood in Los Angeles, among the top 10 Prius sellers in the U.S. “Demand spiked in March, then again in August, and has stayed there.”

In Japan, Toyota has sold 260,947 units of the Prius this year, and the model is poised to be the nation’s best-selling vehicle for a fourth consecutive year, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.

The consideration rate for Prius, averaging 50 miles (80 kilometers) per gallon, has risen among potential buyers in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions since gasoline prices spiked earlier this month, according to Edmunds.com.

Some 11.8 percent of customers in both regions are researching a Prius purchase since Oct. 4, when the refinery disruptions worsened, according to the Santa Monica, California- based vehicle pricing and data website. The consideration rate is up 14 percent in the Los Angeles area and 11 percent in the San Francisco Bay region from the previous month, Edmunds.com said.

Record Sales

The combination of costlier fuel and new models has boosted U.S. sales of electric-drive autos, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery-only models, to a record this year. Some 373,815 such vehicles were sold through September, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Prius sales are 49 percent of the electric-drive segment, based on Bloomberg’s figures.

Toyota’s U.S. sales unit is in Torrance, California. The Toyota City, Japan-based company’s American depositary receipts fell 0.9 percent to $77.83 at the close in New York.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jamie Butters at jbutters@bloomberg.net

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