On this day in 2009, the Honda Insight, billed as “the world’s first affordable hybrid,” goes on sale in Japan. Honda took some 18,000 orders for the car within the first three weeks, pushing Toyota’s Prius, known as the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, out of the top-10-selling cars for that month, according to a March 2009 report in The New York Times.
The Insight, a five-door hatchback, went on sale in America on March 24, 2009, and carried a price tag of just under $20,000. In 1999, a three-door hatchback version of the Insight became the first-ever gas-electric hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S. The Toyota Prius, which debuted in Japan in 1997, arrived in America in July 2000 and went on to outsell the first-generation Insight, which was retired in 2006. By the time the second-generation Insight launched in 2009, Toyota controlled 70 percent of the hybrid market in the U.S. (the planet’s biggest market for hybrid vehicles). Between 2000 and February 2009, Toyota had sold upward of 700,000 Priuses, or more than half of the 1.2 million purchased worldwide, in America. In March 2009, Toyota announced it had sold more than 1 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles in the U.S. under six Toyota and Lexus brands (which in addition to the Prius, include the Highlander SUV and a hybrid Camry sedan, among others).
American automakers trailed behind the Japanese when it came to developing hybrid vehicles. The same week that Toyota announced it had sold its 1 millionth hybrid in America, Ford Motor Company reported that it had built its 100,000th hybrid vehicle in the U.S. As the Times reported in March 2009: “Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese automakers have long made energy efficiency a priority, teaming up with Japan’s electronics conglomerates to develop high-powered batteries.”
In 2008, Toyota passed General Motors to become the world’s largest automaker, a title the American company had held since 1931. GM, which at the time had been hobbled along with the rest of the auto industry by a global economic crisis, received criticism for being the home of the gas-guzzling Hummer and for failing to develop a hybrid vehicle when Toyota first launched the Prius.