Look around the next time you’re out. Start to count them and you’ll soon run out of fingers. The Prius is everywhere. Toyota’s compact-hybrid Sedan has dominated car sales since it was launched in 1997. The Prius, introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show, won accolades such as, “Car of the Year Japan Award” and “Best Green Car of the Year.” It became the second mass-produced hybrid vehicle after the two-seat Honda Insight, but gained popularity due to its ability to seat five passengers and its vastly superior cargo space. Today, Prius sales continue to climb around the world and the car has become an icon for “eco-chic” members of society. My question is, why?

It’s easy to point out why the Prius has gained so much popularity over the years, but many of the reasons for this are misguided or simply untrue. Prices jumped from $50 per-barrel to over $140 per-barrel in the summer oil crisis of 2008, according to rff.org.

Public demand for a vehicle which could achieve high miles to the gallon skyrocketed. With the Prius being the most practical and affordable hybrid on the market (prices started at just under $20,000), sales took off. It seems like a sensible choice then, right? It’s relatively inexpensive and it’s fuel efficient, which means less money spent on gasoline and a cleaner environment.

Wrong. Although the cost of the car was and still is inexpensive, the other two claims, fuel efficiency and eco-friendliness, can’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Let’s start with fuel economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Prius achieves a combined efficiency of 46 miles to the gallon, averaging 48 in the city and 45 on the highway.

Already, there is a problem here. Most cars score higher mpg’s on the highway and lower in the city. The Prius employs a hybrid system which uses an 80 horsepower electric motor when the car is moving slowly and adds 97 horsepower from a 1.8 liter four-cylinder when it is not. When combined, the hybrid system is rated a 137 horsepower, which isn’t exactly a lot for a car weighing over 3,000 pounds.

The issue is, a car weighing that much ends up using more fuel to stay at highway speeds because of its lack of power. The problem increases when you drive even more quickly. The British television show, Top Gear, conducted an experiment involving a Toyota Prius and a 414 horsepower BMW M3. The Toyota was tasked with driving as quickly as possible around a race track for ten laps, while all the BMW had to do was keep up.

When the ten laps were up, the Prius managed 17.2 mpg while the BMW averaged 19.4 mpg. It’s odd then for any car sold based on efficiency, when that efficiency depends on the driver. To quote Top Gear further, “It’s not what you drive that matters, it’s how you drive it.” The second assumption made about the Prius is that, because it’s a hybrid, it will be environmentally friendly. This simply is not the case. The manufacturing process for the Prius (and all other hybrids) is extensive and complicated.

Once again outlined by the presenters at Top Gear, the nickel that is used in the batteries for the electric motors is mined in Canada, shipped over to Europe where it is refined, then shipped to China where it is turned into foam and finally to Japan where it is put into the cars. That’s just the batteries.

With all of the processes used to make the Prius and all of the subsequent shipping on large tankers and planes, the production of the Prius has been shown to cause more environmental damage than almost any other car will in its entire lifetime.

Why then, is the Prius still around and why does it continue to sell by the thousands? The answer is simple. People want a fuel-efficient vehicle. Most people, as is the case with the iPhone vs. Android argument, will look to the most popular and most publicized option, in the Prius as the best product. The fact of the matter is that the Prius cannot stand up to its claims and falls short on some of its most important ones.


Cal Thompson can be contacted at cthompson@keene-equinox.com