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Toyota, Helped by Prius, Emerges From 3-Year Funk (Update 1)

Updated with comments from Toyota on the Polk study of hybrid owners' new car purchases.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- At the New York Auto Show, Toyota (TM - Get Report) focused on its new Avalon as well as its new Venza crossover and its new Lexus sedan.

But some of the biggest news for Toyota came the day before the show's press preview, when March U.S. sales figures showed the Prius hybrid as the third best-selling car and the sixth-best selling light vehicle, with sales of 28,711 units. March was the best month ever for Prius, topping sales of 24,009 in May 2007.

Toyota had a tough year in 2011 as a result of inventory shortages resulting from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It had a tough year in 2010 because, in late 2009 and 2010, it recalled 7.5 million vehicles, damaging its image for extreme reliability. It had a tough year in 2009 because U.S. auto sales fell to their lowest level in 27 years. At least the 2009 problems weren't unique; they were shared with the rest of the industry.

In any case, perhaps the first quarter of 2012 marked a turning point, not only because the automaker began an aggressive program to launch 19 new vehicles during the year, but also because those launches included the Prius C hatchback, targeted to the subcompact market.

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To Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president and general manager, the timing for the launch of the Prius C in March was "impeccable."

"We were launching a new family of Priuses in a quarter when fuel prices were going up," Carter said, in an interview. The Prius family now includes the Prius v wagon, introduced in November, which has a larger cargo area and the less-expensive C compact, which starts at $18,959 and gets up to 53 miles per gallon.

The C and the V should each account for 15% to 18% of Prius sales this year, which Carter estimates at about 220,000, while a plug-in hybrid should account for 5% of sales and the original hatchback model should account for more than half of sales.

Carter noted that a dozen years after its first sale outside Japan, Prius still has "no viable competitor" in the hybrid category. analyst Jessica Caldwell said Prius is the world's "most important hybrid vehicle," one that "regularly comprises more than half of the hybrid market in any given month." Global sales to date total more than 2.5 million, with nearly half of those in the U.S. Meanwhile, "the Prius C has exploded on our website, traffic-wise (and) was one of the top five most considered vehicles on our site last week," Caldwell said.

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In fact, in March, three of the top four hybrids were Toyota products. After Prius, the Camry Hybrid was second with sales of 5,404; third was Hyundai Sonata Hybrid at 4,656; and fourth was Lexus CT at 2,223.
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