The Toyota Motor Company announces on March 11, 2009 that it has sold over 1 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles in the U.S. under its six Toyota and Lexus brands. The sales were led by the Prius, the world’s first mass-market hybrid car, which was launched in Japan in October 1997 and introduced in America in July 2000.
When the Prius debuted in 1997 it was considered a “gamble,” according to a May 2008 report on Wired.com, because “gas was cheap, SUVs ruled the earth and global warming was only beginning to penetrate mainstream consciousness.” However, the Prius’s hybrid technology–which uses an electric motor to supplement power from the gasoline, resulting in lower emissions and higher gas mileage–quickly developed a following. Upon its arrival in America, the Prius was an early hit in Hollywood and environmentally conscious celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz were spotted driving their Priuses around Los Angeles. For the 2003 Academy Awards, Toyota provided a fleet of Priuses to chauffeur celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart to the ceremony. Between 2000 and February 2009, Toyota sold over 700,000 Priuses in America, or more than half of the 1.2 million Priuses purchased around the planet.
Toyota went on to expand its stable of hybrids to include the Lexus RX 400h, the world’s first hybrid-powered luxury vehicle, which launched in April 2005, and the Highlander Hybrid SUV, which debuted in June of that same year. A hybrid version of Toyota’s bestselling Camry sedan followed in April 2006 and was also the first Toyota hybrid to be made in the U.S.
In 2008, Toyota passed America’s General Motors (GM) to become the world’s largest automaker. GM, which at the time had been hobbled along with the rest of the auto industry by a global economic crisis and slumping car sales, 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 (the name is reportedly linked to the Latin for “earlier” and meant to connote a car that’s ahead of its time).
The same week that Toyota announced its 1 millionth hybrid sold in America, the Ford Motor Company reported that it had built its 100,000th hybrid vehicle in the U.S.