The Toyota (TM) Prius was the top-selling can in Japan last year -- a sign that the hybrid has come of age. Most major international car companies sell some form of hybrid car, or an equivalent; VW makes clean diesel vehicles, and Ford (F) pushes its "EcoBoost" engine. High gas prices in 2008 and concerns that gasoline will move back up toward that level have helped car companies sell hybrids that get high mileage per gallon. The large number of environmentally conscious people in the world's largest car markets have probably helped hybrid sales (you can thank Al Gore for that).%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%According to The Wall Street Journal, "The Japan Automobile Dealers Association said Friday that Toyota's Prius was No. 1 in its ranking of sales by vehicle models, with 208,876 Prius cars sold in 2009, nearly three times the number sold the previous year." Honda's (HMC) hybrid finished in second place.
It's hard to say what might push the Prius into the top spot in the U.S. car market. The price of regular gas is back in the $2.75 range, and oil has moved back up to $83. The right economic or geopolitical factors could push prices up even further. It may just take an prolonged attack on Nigerian oil fields or sharply higher demand for crude in China, where many experts expect GDP to be well over 10% next year.
Toyota is now the top car company in the world by most measures. Some experts think that the eventual merger of VW and Porsche could push that combined company to the head of the list, but the new firm will have very little market share in the U.S. For hybrids to really post huge sales around the world they will have to do well in China and the U.S. -- the two largest vehicle markets.
Pollution and gas prices are significant problems in China, and most U.S. drivers cannot bear to pay $3 a gallon for gas, so the Prius and all manner of high-mileage vehicles have a bright future.
Sign of Things to Come: Prius Is Japan's Top-Selling Car