From The New York Times: “The (Volkswagen) Beetle was a revolutionary car that changed how people thought about mass-market transportation. As dedicated as the Beetle was to simplicity, the (Toyota) Prius is equally focused on fuel economy. Typically, cars that obsess over a single objective become niche products, like the previous fuel-economy champ, the original Honda Insight. The Prius succeeded where others failed because it offers a beguiling combination of technical wizardry, everyday practicality and offbeat styling at a mainstream price. People buy a Prius for the efficiency, sure, but not just for the efficiency. The Prius exudes an endearing optimism; its colorful charts and graphs challenge you to be a better person (if, possibly, a more aggravating driver). It’ll fit right in during the next Age of Aquarius.”
I’m a habitual reader of The New York Times but I don’t agree with the conclusion of this paragraph. The Toyota Prius did not succeed where others failed because of its “technical wizardry, everyday practicality and offbeat styling.” If that were the winning combination then the Honda Insight would have been a runaway success as well.
No, the Prius was a one-of-a-kind success because its unique design signaled the drivers’ intentions to the rest of the world. While Honda’s funky little Insight looked like other Hondas, albeit it with rear wheel skirts, the Prius looked like nothing else on the road. THAT’S why eco-conscious consumers, Hollywood A-listers, and suburban social climbers flocked to Toyota’s little hatchback doorstop.
Before the second-generation Prius (the body style we all recognize), the only way to drive an inexpensive car with character and panache was to pick a Jeep Wrangler. But that meant that the socially conscious driver had to make do with a jarring ride, noisy plastic windows, and Spartan accommodations for the sake of significance and style. For the first time in automotive history, Toyota created a status symbol that was practical, affordable, and very, very noticeable.
The Toyota Prius didn’t just usher in a new niche of automobile, it also gave birth to a whole new class of products – socially “correct” merchandise that telegraphs the users’ intentions at a relatively low price. You can see what the Prius wrought in non-automotive applications such as TOMS shoes, LIVESTRONG wristbands, and CLIF bars, among other consumer goods.
These days, the roads are full of all sorts of eco-conscious cars from lots of different manufacturers. But most of them look exactly like their normally powered siblings, the only noticeable difference being the word “HYBRID” stamped on their flanks. Only nascent electric car manufacturers Tesla and Fisker seem to understand what Toyota proved – that consumers who want to save the world want the world to see them doing it and they want to build their personal brands with the cars they drive. After all, we used to say, “You are what you eat.” Now we say, “You are what you consume.”