MEXICO CITY -- Toyota had high hopes when it brought its pride and joy, the renowned Prius hybrid, to the Mexican market in 2010, with its distinctive styling, world-beating fuel economy and spaceship-like interior.
It was a flop.
The Prius only sold a couple hundred units a year after its initial launch. Local car critics were delighted by its uniqueness, but shocked by a sticker price of around $35,000 in a country that, unlike the U.S., offered no tax breaks for electrified cars.
"It was an expensive car, there was no ecological awareness, and gasoline has always been subsidized," said Guillermo Diaz Arana, operations director for Toyota Motor Sales de Mexico, ticking off some of the roadblocks that kept consumers away.
Fast forward to today: Mexico is the fourth-biggest global market for the Prius, with 2016 sales of 4,265 units through September. That's well ahead of Toyota's full-year goal of 2,600 units, which already would have been an 80 percent increase from 2015.
The payoff is significant for Toyota. Not only is the Prius profitable in Mexico, its high gas mileage and low emissions allow the company to meet the nation's corporate average fuel economy and emissions standards, while also selling higher-margin trucks. And the Prius provides a sophisticated brand signature for Toyota as it seeks a bigger footprint in the market.
The Prius' turnaround was made possible by a broader moment of introspection by Toyota de Mexico in 2013 after a change in leadership, Diaz said.
"The first thing that was done is to come up with a vision, which is to be the greenest automobile company in Mexico," Diaz said.
Toyota was primarily a truck seller in Mexico, with a 60-40 ratio of light trucks to cars, thanks to the popularity of its small pickups, a work van and some SUVs.
Getting the Prius to take off would offer Toyota an opportunity to make that mix more lucrative. Along with an economy wagon, the Avanza, and the subcompact Yaris, the Prius would give Toyota a bigger regulatory cushion to sell light trucks all the way up to the Land Cruiser, its signature global SUV.
But it wouldn't be easy. Dealers and salespeople weren't big fans of the hybrid. On dealer lots, it took a long time to explain the technology to consumers and convince them that it was worthy of a near-luxury price tag.
"Salespeople preferred to sell a Corolla," Diaz said.
To change that attitude, he said, "we brought in the best Prius salespeople and we asked them: "What do we have to do to sell more?' We brought in the best Prius dealers, and there was an avalanche of ideas."
For starters, they said, the Prius was too expensive for a market that thrives on small cars priced in the low to mid-$10,000s. So Toyota de Mexico brought in a base model with fewer options, and lowered the price. The Prius now on sale here comes in two trims: an $18,000 base and a $21,000 premium model.
Next came a marketing campaign to convince consumers, especially early technology adopters and wealthier customers, that the Prius represented a different kind of luxury -- green luxury -- and to explain how the hybrid system worked.
"The most common question when people talked about a Prius was "Where do I plug it in?'" said Jorge Murakami, head of marketing for Toyota de Mexico.
To zero in on the most receptive consumers -- environmentalists, car enthusiasts and the tech-savvy -- the marketing team opted to use brand ambassadors such as a fashion editor and car-sharing entrepreneur and focus promotion on social media and movie-theater ads.
When the fashion editor arrived at jet-set parties in her Prius, the luxury-car crowd would inevitably ask her, "Why are you driving that?" said Murakami.
As sales rose, so did the marketing budget. More high-profile brand ambassadors were brought in -- such as pop star Natalia Lafourcade and actor/singer Alfonso Herrera -- and ads spread to more traditional outlets.
Also helping the Prius this year: the Mexico City metro area, home to 40 percent of Prius sales, is implementing stricter smog-fighting regulations that bar cars from the roads on certain days based on their license plate numbers. The Prius is exempt.
Diaz and his team now have new goals for the Prius, starting with beating out the U.K. for third place in Prius sales. The U.S. and Japan are the top markets by far.
The Prius already accounts for about 75 percent of the electric and hybrid market in Mexico and has Toyota looking at what other hybrid products might work in the market.
"I think they are very bullish on Prius going forward," Jim Lentz, chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, said of the Mexican sales effort. "I think they have the confidence now that they can sell the car and sell it in volume."