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February 4, 2011

COMMENT: Prius reign ended by Fit a worthy term

There would have been some popping of champagne corks at Honda HQ in Tokyo today after earlier reports were confirmed that the Fit - which most outside Japan and North America know as the Jazz - had toppled the Toyota Prius from 19 months at the top of the Japanese sales charts.

There would have been some popping of champagne corks at Honda HQ in Tokyo today after earlier reports were confirmed that the Fit – which most outside Japan and North America know as the Jazz – had toppled the Toyota Prius from 19 months at the top of the Japanese sales charts.

I was at Toyota HQ in Nagoya back in mid-2009 when the news came through that the then just-redesigned Prius had achieved Number One and the joy quickly spread throughout the giant campus. And why not? A niche hybrid had taken a spot long often held by the commodity Corolla. Few would have expected it to reign so long.

Its toppling, we are told, is due to the ending of government subsidies on eco-friendly vehicles but we are also told the Fit’s ascension was due to the arrival of a new hybrid version with the recent mid-life facelift. I’d suggest that, after 20 months, the Prius was also no longer new and exciting; a revamped Fit was.

It is, by the accounts of those who have driven its various versions over two generations, a worthy little car with some ingenious interior seating arrangements. Honda’s challenge now is to keep it at the top of the pile as long as the Prius.

Toyota, meanwhile, has Prius plans. We learned in January it would create an extended family of the hybrid line and we heard today, via Toyota GB’s preferred Twitter communication channel, that a seven-seater is destined for Europe along with a Yaris hybrid, a direct competitor for the new Jazz hybrid recently launched over here.

Toyota, if at all miffed by the Fit, can take some comfort that it has done far better than its domestic rivals with hybrids. Press reports for the Prius, bar a bit of claimed fuel economy niggle, have always been far more favourable than for Honda’s Insight, which has already had to have its cheapskate-looking interior upgraded and harsh ride softened, and has also attracted flak for much lower real-world economy than official test cycle claims. Meanwhile, reviews for the CR-Z suggest it needs to be far more sporty to drive in the spirit of Honda coupes of old.

But I doubt we’ve heard the last word on the hybrid battle front either.

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