Amid all Toyota's troubles, Prius fan base grows

Sexy in a schoolmarmish kind of way, the Toyota Priuses strut up and down the highways like wannabe runway models, their drivers lost in their carbon-footprint-reducing reverie.

Since it was first introduced worldwide in 2001, environmentalists and early-adopters embraced the Prius with passion. These days, even after sales plummeted while Toyota fumbled with sticky accelerator pedals and bad press they couldn't bring to a complete stop, the world's most popular hybrid is once again kicking up its heels. Analysts say some of its braking issues may have been exaggerated. Dealer incentives have turned showrooms into bargain bins. And first-time buyers like Emmie Poling have been smitten.

"The ones that crash are an extremely small percentage," said the 60-year-old schoolteacher. "Now that Toyota has had its feet held to the fire, it's very unlikely they'll do anything stupid like this for a long time."

Today, as the automotive industry turns a corner of its own, the iconic hybrid is experiencing a sort of spring awakening. It's back despite Toyota's missteps and thanks to juicy incentives, amped-up production, and a fan base that Stanford University marketing professor Baba Shiv calls "evangelical."

Prius buyers aren't just buying the car, he says. They're buying into it.

"People make an emotional investment in something like a Prius, so it now becomes your baby," Shiv said. "And if someone says something bad about your baby, you get defensive. Studies show that when people get invested in a product, they won't even see the blemishes."

To be sure, Prius is riding the same tide that's lifting Toyota's other models and the industry as a whole. Overall Toyota sales in March were up 35.3 percent over the same period last year, while the gas-electric Prius jumped 27 percent, outpacing the overall light-vehicle market.

With its national sales still about half what they were in 2008, Prius is certainly not out of its pothole. But production is up and waiting lists are gone.

"It's been an absolutely crazy first quarter, but we're seeing the momentum back again," said general manager Adam Simms, who says his Toyota dealership in Sunnyvale, Calif., is the second-busiest hybrid dealer in the United States. He expects to sell 150 Priuses this month versus the 110 he moved in April 2009.

"And about 40 percent of our trade-ins were non-Toyotas, so it's not just people replacing Toyotas with Toyotas."

With the hybrids sitting an average of 35 days on the sales lot last month, down from 43 days a year ago, analyst Jessica Caldwell says buyers seem to be getting over the recent negative publicity and corporate blunders that have made Toyota look like a company falling down the stairs — from stuck-accelerator recalls, to braking problems with the 2010 Prius, to consumer lawsuits, to a record civil penalty for failing to notify federal authorities of a "dangerous defect" in some Toyota models.

But the Prius appears to be zipping right past all that gloomy news, hitting its highest level of sales since last fall. Caldwell said "the incentives helped, but I also think a lot of people have blinders on and still see the Prius as the only hybrid in the market. They don't see other hybrids, like the Ford Fusion or Honda Civic, in the same way."

Sales figures reflect that, with the Prius accounting for about half of all hybrids sold in America.