The Prius Tops the Explorer

Looks like people are beginning to respond to high gas prices:

Toyota Prius sales pass Ford Explorer

Americans bought more Toyota Prius hybrid gas-electric hatchbacks last year than Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, the top-selling SUV for more than a decade.

The change of fortune, buried in U.S. vehicle-sales data for 2007 and unthinkable a few years ago, will find an echo at this year’s Detroit auto show, which starts Sunday.

While Americans’ love for powerful gas guzzlers remains strong, a slowing economy and high gasoline prices are forcing buyers to lower their sights.

While Prius sales soared 69% last year, demand for the Explorer was less than a third of its 2000 peak.

As I have said before, we have fuel-efficient vehicles available now. Consumers just have to be convinced to buy them. High gas prices are starting to convince them. I think this is a more effective approach than forcing car makers to produce more fuel efficient vehicles via CAFE standards. I am not against higher CAFE standards, I just think addressing the demand side is more effective.

My current plan is to buy a Prius when I go back to the U.S. It doesn’t seem that any other option is even close. Is there anything else that can compete with the Prius on a fuel efficiency basis in the U.S. market?

31 thoughts on “The Prius Tops the Explorer”

  1. Is there anything else that can compete with the Prius on a fuel efficiency basis in the U.S. market?

    Not according to the two “real world” databases:

    EPA Shared Mileage Database

    Green Hybrid

    The 2-seat Insight did better in absolute terms, but it is out of production.

    Rumor is that Honda is going to make a hybrid sub-compact to regain the absolute MPG title. A hybrid Fit wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it wouldn’t directly compete with the midsize Prius.

  2. Thanks, Odo. That’s consistent with what I found as well. Hopefully the U.S. automakers will wake up to the opportunity here. If they knew that high oil and gas prices are here to stay, they would probably speed up the move to more fuel efficient vehicles. But this is exactly why I have favored higher gas taxes – price influences demand directly.

  3. While technically the Prius is a nice car, I would never buy one. The reason for this is safety. I have ridden in a friend’s Prius multiple times and every time, I see the driver’s attention consistently taken off the road by the big LCD display on the dashboard. It looked to me like it was as distracting as using a cell phone. A car should never degrade your ability to drive by stealing your attention. The second safety issue is a rearward visibility. Compared to my 1998 Volkswagen golf, you have significantly worse visibility towards the rear as well is less room for driver mobility to twist and look. The side mirrors provide minimal compensation for the blind spot. Visibility to the rear is also significantly hampered. The back of the Hatch comes up much too high eliminating your ability to see anything close to your rear bumper. In Toyota’s infinite wisdom, to compensate for this failing, they put in a $500+ video camera and display system. I’ve never understood the wisdom of using expensive electronics when a simple piece of glass will do. A great example of the rear visibility problems comes from my Prius owning friend. One day come while visiting, I parked my car on the side of his driveway. Backing out, he had plenty of room to back up straight and exit. But no, he backed into my car because he couldn’t see it. And this was with the rear camera video turned on.

    On the other hand, Toyota does recognize that most drivers do not use their side or rear mirrors when driving. The design of the car clearly supports the look straight ahead school of driving.

    My minor complaints about the car is that it is too electronics heavy. My Volkswagen golf was purchased in 1998. It still runs fine at 117,000 miles. Back in the day, the only significant electronic infrastructure was the engine computer and a remote lock control. Volkswagen had so much confidence in their electronic lock that they only put a key lock in the driver’s side door. The lock electronics failed after about four years and the dealer told me don’t bother getting it fixed because it’s going to cost me $500 and its only going to fail in a small number of years. Fast forward to today. I’ve been six years without an electronic lock and living with only the driver opening the car. Look at the electronics in the Prius. How often are people going to cough up $800 or more to fix this LCD panel? How many electronic displays are going to be partially dead because it costs too much to replace? what are people going to do when the rearview camera breaks? How many of these cars will last 10 years and still be drivable? my guess is not very many because manufacturers will make the wrong design decisions and not accommodate for the failure of vehicle electronics. Barring the engine computer, if electronics fail, you should be able to drive the car as well as secure it. There’s no excuse for not providing that capability.

    Yes, I know my attitude means I will be very unhappy with any car I buy in the future. I also acknowledge that there’s a good chance that after five to seven years ownership, I’ll be driving without any instrumentation and probably need to rely on an external GPS unit to tell me how fast I’m going. On the other hand, maybe I can find enough salvage which will let me keep my Golf alive for another 10 years. 🙂

    Country mouse

  4. I drove a 2008 Prius all last week (59 miles on it when we started) and found it to be much the same as in 2005 — that rear window sucks. Average mileage over the whole, mostly highway trip was 42.2. It was nice enough, but my origin and destination were both on rail lines — it would have been nice to be able to take a train and really get high mileage.

  5. FWIW, consumer reports has the Prius on their “most reilable” used cars list.

    Odograph, you continue to amaze. You know the answer to your “For What It’s Worth” question — Absolutely nothing! The punters at Consumer Reports long had a policy of putting Toyota models on their “most reliable” list even before there was any data.

    I guess Toyota reliablity was in the same category as alleged anthropogenic global warming — unassailably true, no data required. (Still waiting for your case for alleged anthropogenic global warming, by the way).

    But turning to automobiles, energy used for fuel is highly visible. However, it is only a part of the total energy used by a vehicle over its life. Rule of thumb used to be that half the energy used by a vehicle in its life was the energy used to make it. With complex Prius-like vehicles, that rule of thumb is probably too low.

    There was an interesting study a couple of years back (since updated) on the “dust to dust” life-cycle energy use of vehicles. Hybrids did not come out too well in that study, though there is room for reasonable disputes over the study methodology. See:

    Energy used for fuel is only a small part of the total picture. In addition to manufacturing & disposing of the vehicle, there is the energy for vehicle maintenance — and let’s not forget the energy it takes to build roads.

    As far as the Prius goes, to get low mpg, most drivers have to alter their driving styles. Of course, if those drivers were to accelerate & brake more carefully in a regular vehicle, that vehicle would also deliver better mpg. Tough to get real apples to apples comparison.

    On an all-in energy use per person-mile basis, my neighbors who squeeze a family of 5 into a used 20-year old sedan make the Californicated solo driver in his Prius look like an energy hog.

  6. Odo – I was wondering about replacing the battery packs in the Prius. How often do they need to be replaced and what is the cost? You don’t hear much about this.

    I’ve never driven one, but it looks like it could have a visibility problem. The small back window might be inherent in the design to achieve the 0.26 drag coefficient.

  7. Robert, you would be doing yourself a favour by driving the Civic Hybrid along with the Prius. Consider the city and highway mileage, not just the combined. The Civic Hybrid gets 40 mpg city 45 mpg highway 42 mpg combined, the Prius gets 48 mpg city 45 mpg highway and 46 mpg combined. You could find you prefer the Civic. A Ford Fusion hybrid may be out shortly and could be worth looking at, it will likely be unveiled this week at the Detroit Auto Show.

  8. I just started tracking the mpg on my 2000 Honda Civic hatchback a few months ago. To my surprise I’m averaging 39-40 miles a gallon overall – it’s not a hybrid. I think the car is rated 32-37. I attribute this efficiency to gradual acceleration and coasting to red lights. Otherwise I drive about 10 mph over the speed limits. This kind of mileage has made me re-think the necessity of a hybrid going forward. You could pick up a car like mine for 5G.

  9. I have four kids, so when I drive my 1999 Ford conversion van with six people in it, the MPG per person is not too bad. Plus, the 3 video screens makes for easy travelling.

    So you might want to consider more kids, then you can drive whatever you want.

  10. Country mouse writes:
    While technically the Prius is a nice car, I would never buy one. The reason for this is safety. I have ridden in a friend’s Prius multiple times and every time, I see the driver’s attention consistently taken off the road by the big LCD display on the dashboard.

    Knowing that LCD-watching is a distraction, you could always set your own display to something boring and not distracting.

    According to
    the Prius is average or above average amongst small cars in safety based on actual insurance loss data. If I’m reading this correctly, it’s safer than the Volkswagen Golf

    I only drove a Prius for a few minutes and that back window is a bit odd,
    but I still felt I had better visibility than in most cars I’ve driven, and only a little worse visibility than in the cars I have bought. But in the end, you have to choose the car you’re comfortable in.

  11. Not on a fuel eff basis, but on cost of fuel/mile the Honda Civic GX is way ahead. Gets 35 mpg highway compared to the Prius at maybe 50 mpg, but CNG fuel (Compressed Natural Gas) is way $1.44/GGE here in Indiana, $0.64 in Utah and you can get a home refill station fill in the garage.

    I drive a Chevy Cavalier CNG bifuel I get 28 mpg, so at 1.30/GGE (fuel up in my garage) you would have to get 70 MPG to have a cheaper fuel cost than I have at $3.20 /Gal gas.

    Emissions are also lower for CNG by quite a bit.

    Google NGV, NGVA, CNG etc.

  12. Robert-

    You might consider a Volkswagen TDI — they get in the 40’s or higher. Last I heard, they weren’t available for the 2007 model year due to the changeover to ULSD, but should be back by 2008.

    (I drive a 25 year old VW diesel that still reliably gets 40mpg in city driving)

  13. I tell people the Prius is a great car … and also averages over 40 mpg. I especially like its interior space, upright seating position, hatchback capacity, and overall size.

    Ours has 48K miles in 2-1/2 years, partly from driving from Los Angeles to Boston for vacation + the 2006 ASPO-USA conference (averaged about 46 mpg).

    We have had no problems beyond tire wear. Brakes hardly wear because of regenerative braking.

    Country mouse, there was an excellent 8-page article on hybrid vehicles in the April 2006 Scientific American.

    On complexity: “In conventional cars, the air-conditioning, power steering, water and oil pumps, and fans draw mechanical power directly from the engine’s rotating parts via belts. Yet such electric components run best at a fixed battery voltage — whereas the mechanical systems must adapt to widely varying engine speeds.” “The large hybrid battery combines with new low-cost power electronics to run these fully electric, high-efficiency components.”

    True the rear visibility could be better, but with the lower part of the rear window (and no video) and a sense of how big the car is I can parallel park in a very small space.

    Kingofkaty, in California emissions states the battery is covered for 10 years / 150,000 miles. Other states 8 years / 100,000 miles.

    Per dcla, a few months after buying the Prius, we test drove the then-new Civic hybrid but didn’t like it. No hatchback, not even a fold-down rear seat; rougher-riding; more gimmicky design inside.

    The Prius is the best car I’ve ever owned. I’m looking forward to a plug-in.

  14. Love my 2006 Prius. My wife and I are both over six feet tall, and our two children are going to exceed our height easily. The Prius has lots of leg room…but not as wide, so getting three adults in back seat will be very cramped. Hatch back/rear area has lots of room for our monthly trips up to Trader Joe’s.

    Most folks who do not know how to drive the Prius for maximum fuel economy generally get between 44-48 mpg, with proper driving technique I am getting between 51 to 53 mpg. Of course I am constantly looking at my dashboard to monitor my battery charge, feathering the gas peddle to engage the electric motor…it takes a little effort to maximize the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.

    I am looking to trading in my wife’s 2004 Chevy Malibu…its been a great car for us….about 26 mpg… more comfortable and quicker than the Prius. The new Hybid Malibu does not get much better mileage than ours…would stick with Prius hybrid.

    The car we plan on purchasing is a VW Jetta TDI Sportwagon, which will be out about mid-year. Over all mileage is estimated to be between 40-50 mpg. I am an old man and remember the days working at the “full service” gas station during the last gas shortage. We sold both gas and diesel…always had much more diesel than gas… if the next time is the same, will be glad to have the Jetta diesel.

    Hope this helps. And again, thank you very much for such a great blog.


  15. @clee
    Knowing that LCD-watching is a distraction, you could always set your own display to something boring and not distracting.

    is that an option? For my solution, see below…

    @previous owner
    Most folks who do not know how to drive the Prius for maximum fuel economy generally get between 44-48 mpg, with proper driving technique I am getting between 51 to 53 mpg. Of course I am constantly looking at my dashboard to monitor my battery charge, feathering the gas peddle to engage the electric motor…it takes a little effort to maximize the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.

    Okay, this is what I mean by driving while distracted. You should not be paying attention to the battery charge. You should not be paying attention to feathering the gas pedal, you should be paying attention to who else is on the road. Motorcycles, SUVs, cell phone users etc. those are the real threats. Remember, when you drive, everyone else is out to kill you. So turn off the damn automotive video game display (cell phone, sandwich, or radio) and drive.

    Personally, if I get stuck with a car with such a display, I’m putting a sheet of cardboard over it and sealing it so I don’t see a flicker.

    I’m getting to be such a curmudgeon in my old age that I believe that cars should not have anything that isn’t directly related to safety. Things like headlights, turn signals, brake lights, air-conditioning are some of the fundamentals. And yes, air-conditioning is a safety feature because as you heat up, your ability to think and react declines. For men, heat makes anger significantly less controllable and leaves us vulnerable to road rage.

    A cool ride means you’re cool under the collar and you can think and drive much more safely and effectively.

    Country mouse

  16. I can’t believe people are still quoting the CNW marketing study, or for that matter making glib battery life comments.

    Do your research. Last time I looked the CNW survey was thoroughly debunked (and so obviously skewed that we saw what kind of “marketing” it was). And last time I checked (last year) Toyota was still able to say that they’d replaced not betteries due to wear or tear.

    Maybe if they were being replaced, then you’d hear about it, eh?

    (I drove and liked the civic hybrid. The deal breaker for me personally was that in that year the rear seat would not fold down. The prius hatchback style can carry a fair amount with its rear seat down.)

  17. After I sold my two Land Cruisers (FJ40 and FJ60, ~11-14mpg each!), I took buses and the train, occasionally riding my bike to work when I could. Then I found Flexcar, and took a liking to the Civic Hybrid. In city driving it would get about 42mpg for me. If you’ve got carsharing in your city, it’s a good way to try out different vehicles and get to where you’re going without worrying about gas prices.

    Later, a good friend of mine that was always on travel would ask me to car-sit her Prius because her previous old Jetta had been stolent twice. I’ve put maybe 600+miles on the car, and actually like it. The screen can be turned off, and even being a short guy of 5’7″ I personally didn’t have any issues with the rear view. It was roomy and quick enough, and I think I got maybe 49mpg tops. Her car is pushing 100k miles because of many, many trips between Washington and Atlanta. No problems that I’m aware of.

    Compared to the older Civic, the Prius has a much nicer feel to me. The new Honda is much improved and more ergonomic, but the windshield area is a little awkward. I didn’t want to like the Prius at first, but have come to appreciate them.

    Were I to get a new car it would be one of the TDI Jettas burning my own biodiesel. However, not everyone wants to go through the hassle of homebrew. Also, the GHG benefit might be dubious, but it’s a fun concept and the motors are dead-reliable. The ultimate (for me) would be a Toyota HZJ-78 troop carrier. Not sure of the mileage, but they seat 13.

  18. My grip about the Prius is that the back seats are only good for kids because the steeply sloped rear liftback causes adult passengers to bump their heads on the glass. I like the Camry hybrid much better – I just wish they’d bring back the wagon body style.

  19. Doug, the Prius II (post 2004?). I take 2-4 adults (usually 3) with me to lunch every day, no bumped heads.

    I consider it my environmental duty to be designated driver (when I can’t talk people into walking).

    I actually test cars before I buy them by sitting back there. I’m 6′.

    One buddy is an outlier. At 6’4″ his knees have a hard time in the front passenger seat.

  20. Robert,
    As pointed out by mpg and Bill (prius owner) you should consider diesel: similar mileage as a hybrid and more models to choose from, especially if you are looking for a large vehicle for the family. Of course, your experience in Scotland would have taught you that one does not actually need a large vehicle for a family.

    A seldom mentioned feature of hybrids is that they get better gas mileage in the city than on highway. So, you should consider where you would be doing most of the miles.

    If you do go diesel, you also have the option of converting your diesel vehicle to drive on waste cooking oil (forget biodiesel already!). That way you can really reduce your carbon footprint. Of course, collecting waste cooking oil is more work, but if you won’t do it, who would?

  21. Optimist, you can look for US-legal diesels in the EPA Shared Mileage Database (above) and then again at the Consumer Reports link (to see if they are on the best or worst list).

  22. Odograph,
    Fair enough. Question: How many of those worst CR vehicles distinguish between gasoline and diesel versions? All things being equal I would expect the diesel version to last a lot longer.

    But of course, it would be great to see more selection for diesel vehicles.

  23. I’ve owned 3 VWs. I liked them, and their personality, but recognized at the time I was paying a bit of a maintenance premium over the Japanese cars.

    I actually went on a TDI-search here in California … would have been about 2003. At the time a few new ones would show up on lots without warning. Limited allocation. I wanted a Jetta Wagon with manual transmission and would have had to go with a used one.

    I checked out a few TDI forums and asked “I remember the maintenance issues, fixed?” I was told no, but I was also told that diesels were sometimes mis-serviced as if they were gasoline models(!). Timing belts put on wrong? Stuff like that.

    I was thinking of VW because I was thinking of them as diesel experts … that made me think again.

    Feel free to take all that with a grain of salt, because I’m just telling what I remember of what i was told 5 years ago.

    Maybe the due diligence for a perspective TDI buyer would be to check out the maintenance records where you can find them, and to check out those TDI forums.

  24. Robert

    As others have indicated, a diesel may be a viable alternative to a hybrid.

    Given my brother’s experience with a VW Jetta, I wouldn’t buy VW though: the repair costs kill (this was in the Northeast with the hard winters).

    I would tend towards Honda or Toyota, on the grounds that if I keep a car as long as a Honda or Toyota can last, then I have done the world a world of good in terms of total lifecycle energy use.


  25. Odo – I didn’t mean to offend with the battery question. I was genuinly curious. The Prius is now 10 years old, surely someone has replaced the battery pack by now.

    I’m just pulling a number out of the air, but if the packs cost $3,000 and you get 10 years, that is only $300 per year, which isn’t too bad. I think you would need to figure that into the costs to drive. I wondered if the batteries really last 10 years. That seems like a lot. I know my PC battery only lasts a couple of years.

  26. Doug, the Prius II (post 2004?). I take 2-4 adults (usually 3) with me to lunch every day, no bumped heads.

    I believe it – although I’ve never sat in one, the old Prius design appears (from the outside) to have more rear headroom because it has a more conventional, sedan-like rear profile.

    I actually test cars before I buy them by sitting back there. I’m 6′.

    So do I – I’m 5’11” but long at the torso. I hit my head on the glass in the 2006+ model Prius. 🙁

  27. I tested this again. I climbed in back and sat up straight. I hit the headliner (the window is further back). My passengers must slouch a bit.

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