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U.S. car makers try to repeat green halo of Prius
By Karey Wutkowski



DETROIT, April 8 (Reuters) - When Tom Weatherbee swapped his minivan for a Toyota Prius hybrid two years ago, he was mostly hoping to save money at the gas pump.

But he was pleasantly surprised by both the requests from friends for a test drive and the grins its aerodynamic profile drew at the grocery store, and he basked in the attention.

"Even the people who own more expensive cars acknowledge the Prius as being pretty cool," said Weatherbee, 51, an electrical engineer who lives outside Traverse City, Michigan.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge for Toyota Motor Co (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research) as it looks to build on the success of the Prius, the leading hybrid vehicle in the United states, and for rivals such as Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote, Profile, Research) and General Motors Corp (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research), which are seeking a share of the projected boom in greener cars.

Even with U.S. gas prices over $3 a gallon, up 50 percent in three years, marketing experts say U.S. buyers want hybrids that not only reduce fuel consumption and emissions but also make a statement about the driver's commitment to the environment.

The result is one of the biggest challenges to the U.S. auto industry since Detroit figured out how to market the hulking, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles that dominated the market in the 1990s.

Toyota's Prius, with a list price of $21,100 and fuel consumption of 45 miles per gallon, commanded 51 percent of the U.S. hybrid market in 2007. Now the No. 1 Japanese automaker is considering extending the Prius line-up -- effectively making it a brand on its own.

GM, meanwhile, is focusing on its all-electric Chevrolet Volt in a bid to create its own "halo" car. Although GM will not sell the Volt until at least 2010, it has already started featuring it in TV ads.

GM invited over 200 Volt enthusiasts from all over the United States to the New York auto show to meet with designers and developers, building further buzz among a group of devotees who call themselves the "Volt Nation."

Honda, which beat Toyota to the U.S. market with the Insight hybrid in 1999 but withdrew it in 2006, is planning a more economical hybrid for 2009 that takes aim at the Prius. Honda's Civic hybrid, at $22,600 and with the same fuel consumption as the Prius, is the No. 2 hybrid but was outsold by the Toyota vehicle by more a more than 5-to-1 margin in 2007.

Hybrids, which shift between a battery and a combustion engine to boost fuel economy, made up just 3 percent of U.S. sales in 2007. But growth was 40 percent from the previous year, and there is plenty of room for that to continue, given that they account for just 0.3 percent of registered vehicles. Gas-thirsty SUVs, by contrast, account for more than 14 percent of vehicles on the road.

Jon Osborn, research director at consulting and research firm J.D. Power & Associates, said automakers must tailor their message to a small but emerging market.

"Only about 6 percent of the U.S. population buys a new car each year," Osborn said. "It's not quite a needle in a haystack, but it's a small target to shoot for."

One complication for car makers has been inaccurate market research. In research groups, car buyers have said they would consider buying a car that looked just like established models, with just a badge on the back to identify it as a hybrid.

But George Peterson, president of consulting firm AutoPacific Inc in Tustin, California, said that is where everyone except for Toyota have missed the mark.

"Our respondents are lying through their teeth," Peterson said.

"The dramatically different look of the Prius is something that's appealing," he said. "The Ford Escape and Toyota Camry hybrid have not been as successful because they don't look as different."

Toyota questions that analysis.

"The buyer is not necessarily trying to make a statement," said Toyota spokeswoman Denise Morrissey. "They're trying to make a smart choice."

Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research) has also questioned the theory that drivers want a halo with their hybrids by playing up the fact that its Ford Escape hybrid looks the same as a regular Ford Escape SUV. But sales of the hybrid Escape, which costs $26,640 and gets 30 miles per gallon, pale in comparison with the Prius.

FULL ARTICLE
 

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"The dramatically different look of the Prius is something that's appealing," he said. "The Ford Escape and Toyota Camry hybrid have not been as successful because they don't look as different."


Oh, yeah, like the Honda Insight... good point, thanks.
 

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The problem with the Escape Hybrid: early adopters of hybrids care about mileage more then anything else. So they want a vehicle that maximizes mileage. Not one that does well considering it's an SUV.

The problem with every other hybrid that follows the Prius: The Prius is HYBRID to many people. So to them the hybrids that follow are following Toyota's lead. Toyo gets the glory.

Why the Volt can be different: Because it is different. By giving people the chance to drive without using gas, Chevy can be the next green company. It can offer people something no one else can. It is absolutey crucial that GM beat Toyo to the punch here.
 

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"The dramatically different look of the Prius is something that's appealing," he said. "The Ford Escape and Toyota Camry hybrid have not been as successful because they don't look as different."


Oh, yeah, like the Honda Insight... good point, thanks.
The Insight was a compact 2-seater. The only 2-seaters that do well in the US are sports cars.
 

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Personally I don't know anyone that sees a Prius and thinks its cool, or anyone that even wants one.
 

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OK here's one guys analysis of the Prius:

I drove my buddy's 2004 Prius (29,000 miles on odo)all over southern Maine this past weekend. I was thrilled to finally find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

Pros: we averaged 41 mpg for 3 days of driving.
Hatchback provides a surprising amount of room.
Ergonomics take some getting used to, but good in general.
Smooth ride over very rough roads.

Cons: slow as stagnant pond water.
The cheapest feeling/sounding doors since the Yugo. They feel light as paper.
Drum brakes in rear!?? Seriously? This is high tech?
Hard & flat seats became uncomfortable after 30 mins of driving.
Annoying rattle coming from rear "spoiler." Has been there off and on since new, but my buddy is lazy and hasn't gotten it fixed yet.

To Sum up: if you think driving is an enjoyable experience, this is not the car for you. If you like to save gas while going very slowly, and want to exhibit a "green" aura, this is your ride.
 

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OK here's one guys analysis of the Prius:

I drove my buddy's 2004 Prius (29,000 miles on odo)all over southern Maine this past weekend. I was thrilled to finally find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

Pros: we averaged 41 mpg for 3 days of driving.
Hatchback provides a surprising amount of room.
Ergonomics take some getting used to, but good in general.
Smooth ride over very rough roads.

Cons: slow as stagnant pond water.
The cheapest feeling/sounding doors since the Yugo. They feel light as paper.
Drum brakes in rear!?? Seriously? This is high tech?
Hard & flat seats became uncomfortable after 30 mins of driving.
Annoying rattle coming from rear "spoiler." Has been there off and on since new, but my buddy is lazy and hasn't gotten it fixed yet.

To Sum up: if you think driving is an enjoyable experience, this is not the car for you. If you like to save gas while going very slowly, and want to exhibit a "green" aura, this is your ride.

great review. i have similar sentiments and also have a friend (brother-in-law) who owned one for a year or so. (It was rear-ended and deemed "totalled" because it was too expensive to fix?!?) I'm sure that's something that many people overlook when discussing the Prius.
 

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OK here's one guys analysis of the Prius:

I drove my buddy's 2004 Prius (29,000 miles on odo)all over southern Maine this past weekend. I was thrilled to finally find out for myself what all the fuss was about.

Pros: we averaged 41 mpg for 3 days of driving.
Hatchback provides a surprising amount of room.
Ergonomics take some getting used to, but good in general.
Smooth ride over very rough roads.

Cons: slow as stagnant pond water.
The cheapest feeling/sounding doors since the Yugo. They feel light as paper.
Drum brakes in rear!?? Seriously? This is high tech?
Hard & flat seats became uncomfortable after 30 mins of driving.
Annoying rattle coming from rear "spoiler." Has been there off and on since new, but my buddy is lazy and hasn't gotten it fixed yet.

To Sum up: if you think driving is an enjoyable experience, this is not the car for you. If you like to save gas while going very slowly, and want to exhibit a "green" aura, this is your ride.
Anecdotal but real. Another anecdotal review, but also real.
http://townhall-talk.edmunds.com/[email protected]@.ef7c05b/538

Your summary is accurate in that the Prius doesn't give any feeling or rush of 'ooooo WOW' when driving it. The slow part is not so accurate. 75 mph in an F150 is the same speed as 75 mpg in a Prius. The 'green' part may be just a statement for some in the same way bling-bling dubs are a statement on a 'slade or an SUV is a statement for a soccer Mom who won't be seen a minivan because of the way it makes her 'look'. Who cares, that's just personal stuff.
 

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Anecdotal but real. Another anecdotal review, but also real.
http://townhall-talk.edmunds.com/[email protected]@.ef7c05b/538

Your summary is accurate in that the Prius doesn't give any feeling or rush of 'ooooo WOW' when driving it. The slow part is not so accurate. 75 mph in an F150 is the same speed as 75 mpg in a Prius. The 'green' part may be just a statement for some in the same way bling-bling dubs are a statement on a 'slade or an SUV is a statement for a soccer Mom who won't be seen a minivan because of the way it makes her 'look'. Who cares, that's just personal stuff.
OK, let me clarify. Getting to 75 mph takes a lot longer in the Prius than in vehicles I'm used to driving, but you're right 75 mph is 75 mph no matter what you're driving.
 
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