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Why is Prius the Much-loved Toyota?

Why is the Toyota Prius much-loved? One answer may be that Prius shoppers want everyone to know that they are driving a hybrid. But there are numerous reasons to add to the list.

Only a third of Prius owners cited that reason just three years ago, according to CNW, which tracks auto shopping trends. "I really want people to know that I care about the environment," said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, the owner of a green 2006 Prius. "I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car." Dan Becker, the head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club added, "The Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever."

This spring, over half of the Prius owners surveyed by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said that the main reason they bought their car was that it makes a statement about them.

Mary Gatch of Charleston, S.C., picked the car over a hybrid version of the Toyota Camry after trading in a Lexus sedan. "I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there," Gatch said. "I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message."

Unlike the original Prius buyers, who wanted to be first with its innovative technology, the latest owners are far more conscious of foreign oil dependence and global warming, said Doug Coleman, Toyota's product manager for Prius. "Consumer knowledge and consumer awareness is changing," Coleman said.

Prius sales for the first six months of the year increased 93.7 percent from last year, to 94,503, and the Japanese automaker has already sold close to as many Prius cars as it did in all of 2006.

The Toyota Prius was first embraced by famous celebrities and remains in trend long after most cars have lost their hum. Owners have included Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Billy Joel, and Larry David. David has bought three, including one for his role in the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Now Prius drivers are typically found in cities on the East and West Coasts, and in college towns like Ann Arbor, Mich., and State College, Pa. "You can't drive across town without seeing half a dozen of them," said Peter Darnell, a software engineer and Prius owner in Westford, Mass., north of Boston. Darnell admits to feeling smug this year when gasoline prices spiked above $3 a gallon. But that was not the main reason he purchased a Prius. "I have to admit that I'm a granola-crunching liberal, and I really liked the idea of minimizing the impact on the environment," Darnell said.

Corey Confer, the general sales manager at Joel Confer Toyota in State College, said that he had received calls from as far away as Key West, Fla., from buyers looking for a Prius. His dealership advertises an $800 discount on each vehicle. A number of dealers in the West are adding $2,000 premiums.

Nationwide, Prius sales increased dramatically in May, when gasoline prices rose over $3 a gallon. Worldwide, Toyota has sold over one million Prius cars. Toyota was alarmed to see Prius sales even out last year. But before gas prices hit record levels, Prius sales were climbing again.

Toyota executives have said that they plan to offer a hybrid version of everything the company sells worldwide, perhaps as soon as 2010. That fact could make a fanatic forget about the most fascinating Volkswagen Touareg part. Japanese press reports said that the Japanese automaker may even build Prius into a separate brand, with basic and sporty Prius models.

About The Author Anthony Fontanelle is a 35-year-old automotive buff who grew up in the Windy City. He does freelance work for an automotive magazine when he is not busy customizing cars in his shop.
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