To Buyers, Prius Is Worth the Wait

Unexpected demand for Prius forces Toyota to up production and customers onto long waiting lists

Published: 08-Feb-2004

The 2004 Toyota Prius hit the U.S. consumer market in mid-October and is so hot that consumers in some areas are adding their names to waiting lists up to four months to get the gasoline-electric hybrid that boasts 51 miles per gallon on the freeway and 60 in the city.

"I'm No. 11 now at Garden Grove Toyota," said Steve Livingston, 51, of Newport Beach, Calif. When he signed up at the beginning of November, he was No. 18. That was after checking with dealerships in Arizona and Nevada, which had long waiting lists, too.

Livingston, who owns four cars, including a 2001 Porsche, is so taken with the comfort and fuel economy of the Prius that he's replacing his 2000 Mercedes-Benz with the hybrid.

"I like the roominess of the interior itself," Livingston said. "I'm 6-foot-1 and can comfortably sit in the front or back."

He also is looking forward to the fuel savings, because he uses premium gas in most of his cars.

Toyota estimates that most drivers will spend $400 annually to gas up its 2004 model. Plus, consumers get a federal tax deduction of $2,000.

Originally, Toyota, which produces the Prius out of one plant in Japan, had planned to manufacture 36,000 cars. Now, it's ramping up production to 45,000.

In 2002, U.S. consumers bought 38,000 hybrid vehicles, says auto researcher J.D. Power and Associates.

"This type of demand is hard to predict," said Paul Daverio, marketing manager for Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif. "But consumers now seem to have the confidence in the technology."

What's special about the Prius is that the software in the system tells the hybrid engine when to switch to electric, when to use gas or when to use both.

Consumers don't have to plug the car into anything to recharge the electric battery pack, designed to last six to eight years. Instead, the pack is recharged by the gas engine and through a process called regenerative braking.

When a driver applies the brakes, the system captures energy that would typically be lost as heat. That energy is used to recharge the batteries.

Aside from the fuel-economy and great handling, Emmons loves the techy features that make his driving more fun. Because he has a cell phone with Bluetooth wireless technology, he can punch a button on the steering wheel and receive phone calls.

When a call comes in, the stereo mutes so the driver doesn't have to turn down the volume. Calls can be dialed by using the keypad on the car's navigation screen.

Emmons also doesn't have to use a key to enter or start the Prius. Instead, he keeps his key in his pocket and an on-board sensor recognizes the signal from the key and unlocks the doors.

He then pushes a button to start the car.

The 2004 model has even made a big impression within the automotive industry, with Motor Trend magazine and the automotive press naming the Prius Car of the Year for 2004.

And it has company in the U.S. market. Besides the Honda Insight, Honda also has a Civic Hybrid, which gets about 48 miles per gallon in the city and on the freeway.

"But the Prius brings the benefits of the hybrid into the mainstream," said Kevin Smith, editor of Motor Trend. "You don't have to be a hybrid nut to want one. This is a roomy, pleasant-to-drive car with great fuel efficiency."

Because demand is so high for the Prius, don't expect to negotiate any discounts, says Mark McCready, director of pricing strategy at Carsdirect.com, a Culver City, Calif.-based business that helps consumers shop for vehicles using the Internet. The manufacturer's suggested retail price starts at $19,995 and can run as high as $26,000 when loaded with the voice-activated navigation system, Bluetooth technology and keyless entry.

Dealerships are asking consumers to put down deposits when they sign up on the waiting list, which can be two weeks to four months, McCready says. Deposits range from $100 to $1,000.

Putting down a larger deposit doesn't mean you'll get your Prius faster, though, experts say. And most dealers are holding the checks.

Tito Fuentes, 50, of Dana Point, Calif., got lucky. He signed up with six dealerships and plunked down deposits of $100 to $500 at each.

Two weeks later, he got his black Prius from South Coast Toyota in Costa Mesa, Calif.

"I totally lucked out because black isn't the popular color, and I didn't get one of the big option packages," Fuentes said.

He did opt for the keyless entry and paid a little over $22,000 for his car, which holds his mountain bike once he folds down the seats in the hatchback.


 

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