LOS ANGELES — Six months ago, Florida dealer Earl Stewart had 135 customers on a waiting list to buy a Toyota Prius. Now he is running ads offering discounts of up to $2,000 on the not-so-hot hybrid.
One of the largest sellers of Priuses in the country, Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach now has about 70 on the lot that it can't get rid of.
"Any kind of Prius anybody wants — any color, any anything — I've got it," Stewart says. "And if I don't have it I can get it because there are several hundred in the port. Dealers don't want them."
Prius sales of 7,859 units in December were just over a third of what they were last April, but that's not Toyota's only problem. The brand broke through as the industry's top seller in 2008, beating Chevrolet and Ford for the first time. Yet sales were down 14.7 percent for the year and plunged 36.7 percent in December.
Toyota fell behind Chevrolet and Ford for the month and was the only one of the top-five selling brands to lose market share. So after a 0 percent financing program failed last fall, Toyota is now preparing to pump money into consumer rebates.
"Toyota was riding high with the high-mileage cars," Stewart says. "We were thriving on fuel efficiency. Then the economy got worse and suddenly our advantage vanished even more because of low gas prices."
The Prius was down 44.7 percent in December, but it was in the truck categories that Toyota really came up short. The 4Runner, Highlander and Tundra all were down about 50 percent compared with December 2007.