The Toyota Prius has been on an incredible ride. Now it's at a marketing crossroads.
When it arrived in the U.S. in 2000, it barely turned heads, selling in low volumes to only the most ardent environmentalists and early adopters.
But the second generation that arrived in 2003, featuring more room and better fuel economy, soared to prominence, emerging as a status symbol for Hollywood celebrities and running up big sales as gasoline prices rose. The word "Prius" came to define fuel economy, and the car became the pacesetter against which all alternative powertrain vehicles are measured.
So strong was the Prius name that Toyota made a big bet in 2011: It turned Prius into a brand of its own and launched three variants -- the roomier Prius V, a small high-mileage Prius C and a plug-in version -- in addition to the original hatchback. In 2012 and 2013, Prius sales climbed to new highs.
But the hybrid revolution that the Prius ushered in has put it in an awkward position: So many other brands have followed Toyota's lead into the hybrid market that the Prius no longer stands out.
Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Honda have fielded credible hybrids, and the term "hybrid" is now attached to a wide range of cars, including SUVs, luxury sedans and performance cars such as the Porsche Panamera, not to mention much of Toyota's own lineup. And fuel economy, the very characteristic that made Prius a technological showcase, is rising across the board, thanks to smaller turbocharged engines and the growth of clean diesel.
As a result, some of the cachet of the Prius name has faded. Today, the brand name that embodies cutting-edge powertrain technology is Tesla.