Drive to save the world

March 16, 2009

On my five minute walk from the tube station back to my house today, I counted 5 Prius sedans either passing by or parked on Elgin Avenue: that’s a Prius a minute.  And while these seems to represent a massive increase in the number of Prius I’ve seen in London, they aren’t nearly as many as in for example, Palo Alto, California, where I noticed last year that the hybrid car was as ubiquitous as Starbucks take-away cups and iphones.

While London leads on many trends (music and strange fashions being two of them), we often lag the US on other trends.  Take for example movies.  Movies are always released a month or so later in the UK than in the US – much to the disappointment of visiting friends who see movie advertisements in the tube for things that they’ve already seen.  The Prius could be one of these products to lag.  But will the Prius ever be as popular in London as it is in Palo Alto?

Toyota announced in May last year that they had sold 1 million Prius models globally, but  Europe accounted for only 130,000 sales.   This is despite the fact that environmental consciousness is generally higher in Europe, and fuel efficiency standards are higher.  In fact in London, the Prius is a neat way to avoid paying the “congestion charge:” a fee of £8 daily charged to any passenger car entering central London.  The mayor included the Prius as exempt because of its hybrid engine and high fuel efficiency.  So why are Prius sales still much lower in Europe than in the US?

My walk from the tube to the house provided the answer.  In London, the Prius is BIG.  Compared to the average European car, the Prius is “super-sized”, a bit like a venti Starbucks latte in a land of Illy espresso cups.  In fact, a number of popular, small European cars get even higher fuel efficiency than the Prius: the new Fiat 500, the Smart for two, the super-cute Citroen C2, and several others.  And most of them have two additional bonus: they cost a lot less, and are easier to park in small European spaces.  Thus, Toyota might do better with it’s new hybrid mini-car, the iQ, which is the same length as the Smart, but seats 4.

Of course, Prius sales could expand regardless as it becomes a status symbol.  In my neighbourhood, driving a Prius is probably the equivalent of pushing your baby in a Bugaboo stroller (which really are ubiquitous).  In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the same demographic driving both over-sized vehicle.  Tomorrow I’m going to be on the look-out for passing Pri-i with Bugaboo’s in the back, and venti Starbucks take-aways in the cup holder…

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