Toyota takes too much credit for 'Prius' sales

LOS ANGELES -- When is a Toyota Prius not a Prius?

When it's a Prius C.

Toyota would like America to embrace the idea of its Prius family of four hybrid vehicles in a warm hug of environmentalism.

Toyota might be taking it a bit too far.

In branding terms, it's smart. Combine different vehicles using Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive under the same brand umbrella, and you create marketing, ahem, synergies.

The problem is that some but not all of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive vehicles are lumped into this branding scenario. So there are four "Priuses," but then Toyota also has Camry Hybrids and Highlander Hybrids, which also use Toyota's HSD system.

Taken separately, the Prius V is basically a Prius Liftback with a taller roofline but almost identical components to the Prius. And the Plug-In Prius uses lithium ion batteries instead of nickel-metal hydride and has a plug-in port but otherwise has the same sheet metal.

But the Prius C has so little in common with the original Prius Liftback that it really shouldn't be listed in the Prius sales chart.

The Prius C uses a different platform, using the Yaris as a base. The sheet metal is different. The Prius C uses a smaller base engine and has a smaller battery pack. Priuses have a "joystick" gearshift toggle, but the Prius C has a traditional "PRNDL" layout.

As such, the Prius C has as much DNA in common with a Prius as the Camry Hybrid does. By that measure, a Camry Hybrid could be called Prius Grande -- or Toyota could have correctly called the Prius C the Yaris Hybrid.

But because of this loose confederation of vehicles, Toyota can lump the Prius C in with traditional Prius sales every month, showing the Prius to be more popular than it really is.

For the record, in May, Prius sales of 21,477 units were split 61 percent for the Prius Liftback, 17 percent for the Prius C, 17 percent for the Prius V and 5 percent for the Prius Plug-in. Break it down, and Toyota sold 13,100 "original" Priuses, which is a pretty average month for that nameplate.

Toyota doesn't help matters because getting the sales breakout for the various Prius nameplates is like pulling teeth.

So while nearly one in five Prius sales is a branding trick, at least the Prius C is a real hybrid. It gets 50 real-world mpg out of its subcompact underpinnings, no matter what Consumer Reports thinks of its rough ride. So there's no greenwashing going on.

Still, Toyota should just break out the various Prius models in its sales reports. Toyota can still call it a family -- just a slightly dysfunctional one that shares some splintered DNA.

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