MONEY Autos

Why This Might Be the Beginning of the End for the Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius
Toyota Toyota Prius

A decade ago, the Prius was the industry darling, viewed as the hip, smart choice among green celebrities and budget-conscious commuters alike. Yet in 2014, Prius sales plummeted—and cheap gas is only part of the reason why.

When Toyota released its December 2014 results this week, the automaker highlighted how—like most of the industry—sales have been booming. Toyota sales in the U.S. jumped 12.7% compared with the previous December, and they were up 6.2% for the year as a whole. The announcement also played up the fact that Lexus had its best sales month ever in December; that sales for trucks, SUVs, and the Sienna minivan were all soaring; and that the Camry held bragging rights as America’s best-selling car, a title it’s owned for 13 years running.

What’s just as interesting about the announcement is the car model that’s notably absent: Toyota Prius. The world’s best-selling and best-known hybrid vehicle, the pioneering Prius, is not mentioned in one Toyota 2014 sales press release and is downplayed in another, with only a quick line stating “we sold more than 200,000 Prius for the third consecutive year.”

Understandably, Toyota is trying to accentuate the positive in 2014 sales, so let’s turn to the auto resource site WardsAuto, which states explicitly that the Prius’s 207,372 units sold represents a 11.5% decrease from 2013. USA Today recently called on another sales data source to report that through the first 11 months of 2014, Prius sales were down nearly 16% compared with the prior year. What’s more, according to the Detroit Free Press, overall sales of gas-electric hybrids like the Prius were on pace to fall 9% for the year.

In 2013, gas-electric hybrids accounted for 3.2% of all light vehicle sales in the U.S. Last year, that figure dipped to just 2.8%. This isn’t remotely the trajectory most experts anticipated. A J.D. Power forecast made in 2008, when hybrids were 2.2% of U.S. car sales, predicted that the category would constitute 7% of the market by 2015.

What happened? The short answer is: cheap gas prices. Oil prices have plunged since summer and have just kept on falling. The consensus says that the result will be inexpensive prices at the pump for the indefinite future. According to AAA, the national average for a gallon of regular was $2.20 as of Monday, roughly $1.10 cheaper than one year ago.

The plummeting price of gasoline has surely played a big role in hot sales for SUVs and luxury cars on the one hand (Rolls-Royce had record-high sales), and the struggles of the Prius and hybrids on the other. In December, a Businessweek article argued that with $2 gas being commonplace, the Prius is only viewed as a smart financial choice by drivers “who stink at math.” Researchers factored in the upfront costs of the Prius and a similarly equipped gas-powered Chevy Cruze, and then did the math on how long it would take for the pricier Prius to pay off via savings on fuel. The answer was that with $2 gas prices, you’d have to own the Prius for 28 years to break even compared with the overall costs of the Cruze.

But cheap gas is only part of the reason why Prius sales are on the decline. Karl Brauer, senior director of insights for Kelley Blue Book, explained that “the Prius had a good thing going for several years as the ‘official’ vehicle of the environmentally conscious,” a reputation that was solidified during the 2003 Academy Awards, when dozens of celebrities arrived in chauffeur-driven Priuses. The cachet of the Prius has dissipated in the years since because, among other reasons, its fuel efficiency advantage over the competition has shrunk substantially, and Tesla has emerged as the green car of choice that’s not only environmentally friendly, but stylish and a rip-roaring hoot to drive as well.

“A lot of vehicles today get 40+ miles per gallon and you don’t have to make the sacrifices you do with the Prius,” said Brauer, pointing to the fun-to-drive Volkswagen Golf and the surprisingly spacious and practical Honda Fit as appealing, fuel-efficient alternatives to the Prius. “And the Tesla has hurt the Prius as much as anything else.”

What’s especially interesting is that while low gas prices appear to be a factor in declining sales of the Prius and other hybrids, cheap fuel doesn’t seem to be cutting into sales of some purely electric-powered cars, like the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf.

A recent study conducted on the behalf of NACS, a convenience store and retail fuel association, estimates that each 10¢ drop in gas prices correlates to a 1% decrease in consumers who would consider alternative-fuel vehicles. As of November, for instance, 34% of Americans polled said they would be interested in an all-electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf, compared with 55% in April, when gas prices were roughly 90¢ per gallon more expensive.

And yet, curiously, while sales of the Prius and other hybrids have suffered hand in hand with falling gas prices, the Nissan Leaf has had a record year. Nissan sold 3,102 Leafs in December and 30,200 Leafs for all of 2014, up from 2,529 and 22,610, respectively, the year before. Likewise, even though the Model S wasn’t new in 2014 and had a high starting price of around $70,000, Tesla sold about as many of the models last year as it did in 2013 when it was the absolute darling of the industry.

One explanation for why sales of pure electric vehicles haven’t slumped like hybrids is that in certain circles EVs are viewed as superior in terms of environmental friendliness and just plain coolness. Then again, it must be pointed out that even as Prius sales decline, it still outsells the Nissan Leaf by a factor of nearly seven.

A 2016 model year Prius is expected to hit the market this year, and Brauer said that, in light of EVs holding the edge in terms of being the green choice, and vastly improved fuel-efficient mainstream vehicles being the smarter economic option in an era of cheap gas, Toyota faces real challenges getting sales back on the upswing. “They have to make the Prius appealing beyond the green car claims,” he said. “The ‘green’ has to be gravy on top of what’s a fun car to own and drive.”

Read next: Sony Is Bringing Back the Walkman With One Huge Surprise

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MONEY Shopping

5 Everyday Items You Paid More for in 2014—and 3 That Got Cheaper

A few of America's favorite items for snacking, cooking, and recaffeinating got a lot more expensive this year. Meanwhile, one big cost has gotten much cheaper.

Inflation causes the slow, steady rise in prices for all manner of goods and services. But the price hikes incurred by the five common expenditures below have far outshot inflation. Over the past year, chances are a much larger portion of your household budget has been allocated to the following expenses.

 

  • Olive Oil

    Bottle of olive oil
    Sue Wilson—Alamy

    Olive Oil Times noted recently that “2014 will go down as one of the worst years in recent history for olive oil production in Italy.” Production has slowed significantly in Spain and Portugal as well, thanks to a range of factors including a fruit fly infestation and a cold spring followed by a hot, humid summer—followed by hail storms. The end result is that global production of olive oil could be down as much as 27%, and prices for high-quality European olive oil are soaring: Recently, wholesale prices for extra virgin olive oil in Italy were up 121% compared to a year ago.

  • Beef

    T-bone steak on white butcher paper
    Foodcollection.com—Alamy

    Virtually all meat prices rose in 2014, thanks largely to long periods of drought in the American West colliding with increased global demand. Yet beef prices rose swiftest of all this year, with live cattle futures hitting an all-time high in November and retail prices being pushed up 18% to 20% compared to a year ago. And get this: Skyrocketing beef prices are being blamed for what appears to be the return of cattle rustlers, who presumably made off with 150 cows that were reported missing in Idaho, and that are worth over $300,000. Perhaps worst of all, bacon prices have been rising nearly as steeply as beef.

  • Chocolate

    Hershey's, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel chocolate bars.
    Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

    Surging cocoa prices led both Hershey’s and Mars to raise prices by 8% or so on your favorite chocolate candy bars this year. And because the supply of chocolate appears unable to keep up with demand—which is soaring in particular in Latin America and Asia—chocolate prices are expected to keep rising going forward.

     

  • Airfare

    Airport planes
    Nicholas J. Reid—Getty Images

    The average round trip flight in the U.S. surpassed $500 in 2014, and the cost of flying domestically has been rising nearly 11% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation. What’s puzzling—not to mention frustrating—for travelers is that base prices for flights have been soaring at a time when airline fees and airline profits are both sharply on the rise. Lower fuel prices have served to make profits even larger, and while the airlines have kept prices high thus far in the new era of cheap oil, costs have declined so dramatically that some are anticipating slightly cheaper airfare in 2015.

  • Coffee

    The Starbucks Corp. logo sits on carboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks coffee shop.
    Jason Alden—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Starbucks, Folgers, and Dunkin’ Donuts are among the well-known coffee brands subjected to price increases in 2014. Persistent drought in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee bean producer, has been blamed as the main reason for the price hikes. And while it may seem as if coffee drinkers will pay any price to get their java fix, a recent report noting falling coffee sales from Smuckers, maker of Folgers, indicates that the demand for coffee has its limits. Meanwhile, Starbucks’ new plan focuses on a luxury retail concept, where a haute cup of Joe will run around $6.

    On the flip side, you paid less for these three expenditures in 2014:

  • Gas

    Mark Monaham, owner of the Raceway gas station in McComb, Miss., changes his fuel price billboard, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. Gas prices throughout the region continue to fall as oil prices plummet.
    Daniel Lin—AP

    Thanks to an increase in supply and lower consumption due to more fuel efficient vehicles and other factors, gas prices launched into a slow, steady decline last summer that hasn’t really ended. The national average hit what was then a low for 2014 in early October, at $3.27 per gallon—a rate that seems quite expensive of late. Prices dipped under $2 per gallon in a few stations in Oklahoma in early December, and government forecasts are predicting a national average of $2.60 per gallon for 2015, down from $3.51 in 2013.

     

  • TVs

    A Walmart employee helps a customer with a 50" TV on sale for $218 on Black Friday in Broomfield, Colorado November 28, 2014.
    Rick Wilking—Reuters

    It’s no surprise that the price of most electronics drops year after year, thanks to increasingly lower production costs and the fact that any technology available for more than six months is deemed old and unhip—and therefore must be discounted. Even so, the dip in TV prices in 2014 has been pretty amazing. In October, the Labor Department reported that TV prices were down 14%, and that decrease of course occurred well before the rollout of super cheap TV deals on Black Friday and the rest of the holiday period. As Consumer Reports noted recently, it’s now pretty easy to find a 40-inch TV for less than the price of an 8-inch tablet.

     

  • Cellphone Bills

    Pedestrians pass a Verizon Wireless store on Canal Street in New York.
    John Minchillo—AP

    The past year brought with it more changes in cellphone plans than we’ve seen in perhaps the previous five years combined. In addition to a sharp shift toward more possibilities in “non-contract” plans, in which you’re not locked into a two-year deal, wireless providers have been especially aggressive this year in terms of rolling out new plans and bonuses in order to win over customers from the competition. In August, for instance, Verizon and Sprint both introduced significantly cheaper plans to new customers—potentially cutting one’s monthly bill by 50%. More recently, Sprint promised a new unlimited talk and text deal that would cut in half the bill currently paid by any AT&T or Verizon customer.

    None of this necessarily means that your household’s smartphone bill actually went down in 2014. But considering the increased competition and wide range of new individual and family plan offers on the table, you should be paying less. If you’re not, it’s time to start shopping around to get a better deal. You might not even have to switch providers. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling up and asking for a cheaper option.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Won’t Cut Oil Production to Boost Prices

Ali Ibrahim Naimi
Kamran Jebreili—AP Saudi Arabia's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali al-Naimi attends the opening day of 10th Arab Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi on Dec. 21, 2014

Global oil prices are tanking, but OPEC is holding firm on not slashing production to buoy prices

Saudi Arabia will not cut oil production to boost depressed prices, a reversal in the kingdom’s usual policy of moderating supply to control prices and sending a strong message about the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) strategy for dealing with a slumped oil market.

Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali al-Naimi told reporters on Sunday that even if non-OPEC countries cut production, Saudi Arabia would not follow them, Reuters reports. Other ministers, including from Kuwait and Iraq, repeated the Saudi minister’s insistence on retaining steady production levels.

A boom in U.S. shale-gas production has flooded the global oil market and sent gas prices tanking.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut oil production has led to speculation that the world’s top petroleum exporter could be seeking to knock gas prices even lower, testing U.S. shale-gas producers resolve to keep pumping. Saudi Arabia has denied any such plot and American officials have reiterated that the U.S. maintains close and friendly relations with the kingdom.

[Reuters]

TIME energy

Gas Stations in 24 States Drop Prices to $2 a Gallon

Mark Monaham, owner of the Raceway gas station in McComb, Miss., changes his fuel price billboard, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. Gas prices throughout the region continue to fall as oil prices plummet.
Daniel Lin—AP

Christmas comes early for many commuters

An oil boom has pushed gas prices at some stations, as of Saturday, down to as little as $2 a gallon.

Price tracking service GasBuddy.com found that pockets of low prices below $2 have also cropped up across the country, while average prices across the U.S. are tracking at $2.43 a gallon.

“As of this morning, there are 24 states with prices under $2 a gallon,” GasBuddy’s senior petroleum analyst told USA Today.

Commuters in Missouri have reaped the biggest windfalls, with gas dropping to $1.96 a gallon in Springfield–and even lower in some outlying towns.

With Saudi Arabia’s announcement in September that it would keep the oil flowing, despite falling prices, analysts predict that gas prices have not bottomed out just yet. American Automobile Association analysts expect prices to fall by another seven cents, just in time for Christmas.

Read more at USA Today.

TIME energy

New York Bans Fracking

After years of debate in the state over the controversial drilling technique

The administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that the controversial drilling technique known as fracking will be banned in the state, citing concerns over risk of contamination to the state’s air and water.

“I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said. The announcement comes after years of debate over the practice, during which New York has had a defacto fracking ban in place, the New York Times reports.

Fracking employs chemicals and underground explosions to release oil and gas trapped in shale deposits that are inaccessible by conventional drilling techniques. Some environmentalists contend that fracking contaminates groundwater and can contribute to seismic activity, and that increased drilling activity can contribute to air pollution and other environmental problems.

[NYT]

TIME Economy

#TheBrief: Why Gas Prices Are Falling

The reason you're paying less at the pump

You may have noticed a lower number on your gas station receipts. The average price of gas in the U.S. is now $2.55 per gallon, the lowest it’s been since 2009. We’re told to never question a good thing, but why are these prices falling?

Watch The Brief to find out why you’re spending less than usual at the pump.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: From California’s Pineapple Express to Another Shutdown Drama

Watch this week's #KnowRightNow to catch up on all the latest stories

The House passed a $1.1 trillion spending package late Thursday to ensure that the government will avoid another damaging shutdown. “This compromise proposal merits bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and hopefully will arrive on the President’s desk in the next few days, and if it does, he will sign it,” stated White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

A tropical storm called the Pineapple Express pummeled the Pacific Northwest on Thursday. In drought-stricken California, flooding and mudslides prompted rare school closures in the north of the state. Powerful winds knocked out power to more than 150,000 homes in Washington.

Gas prices hit a 4-year low this week, with the average price of gas in the United States sinking to $2.72 per gallon. That’s the lowest gas prices have been since November 2010. Prices are dropping due to higher North American oil production and less demand. New Mexico has the lowest gas prices at $2.38 per gallon, and San Francisco has the highest gas prices at $3.04 per gallon.

And lastly, on Wednesday, TIME Magazine chose the Ebola fighters as 2014’s Person of the Year. “They risked and persisted, sacrificed, and saved,” TIME editor Nancy Gibbs wrote.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Why Gas Prices Are at the Lowest Point in 4 Years

Gas prices have dropped significantly for Americans, and several factors are driving the change in prices

American drivers may have noticed a smaller bill at the pump recently– that’s because the average price of U.S. regular gas has recently reached $2.72 a gallon, the lowest it’s been in four years.

In the last two weeks alone, the average price has dropped 12 cents. But what is the reason for these dropping prices? Watch this video to find out what’s causing the cheaper fuel, and where you can find the most affordable gas in the country.

TIME

Morning Must Reads: December 8

Capitol
Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

California Protests Turn Violent

A second night of protest against police killings in Missouri and New York City turned violent again in Berkeley, Calif., as some demonstrators threw explosives at officers, assaulted each other and shut down a freeway, police said

Why Dealing With Uncertainty is Easier for Some People

A study identifies personality traits that may distinguish those who are better or worse at waiting — some of which, thankfully, may be adaptable

Behind the Rescue Op in Yemen

Navy SEALs flew into southern Yemen early on Saturday to rescue American captive Luke Somers, but they only succeeded in rescuing his body

U.S. Gas Prices Hit 4-Year Low

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline has dropped 12¢ over the past two weeks, reaching a four-year low, a new survey finds. The falloff is attributed to a spike in crude-oil production in North America, a slowdown in demand and a strong dollar

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Tops Box-Office for Third Week

Mockingjay benefits from star power, family friendliness and established popularity. But even so, its box-office power is less attributable to esteem for the franchise than to the fact that it doesn’t have much competition right now

Ebola Patient Reveals Identity

A doctor who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Sierra Leone and was evacuated to the U.S. for care in September has revealed his identity. The viral load in his blood was 100 times that of the facility’s other patients

Prince William and Kate Arrive in New York City

Prince William and Kate arrived in New York City on Sunday night for a three-day trip, the most anticipated royal visit since the glory days of Diana. “The level of excitement in New York has been absolutely phenomenal,” said the British consul general

U.S. Transfers 6 Guantanamo Detainees

The men were moved from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay, marking the largest group to depart the prison since 2009 and first resettle in South America. The detainees include four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian

Democrats Sink in the South

The fall of Sen. Mary Landrieu means Louisiana won’t have a Democratic statewide elected official for the first time since 1876. The Republican Party will control every Senate seat, governor’s mansion and legislative chamber from the Carolinas to Texas

Boyhood Wins Another Top Prize

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association has awarded Boyhood four prizes, including Best Picture, in the latest coup for the coming-of-age movie. Just a day earlier, the Boston Society of Film Critics honored the film with five awards, also including Best Picture

New Delhi Bans Uber Following Rape Accusation

The city of New Delhi banned popular ride-sharing service Uber on Monday afternoon, a few days after a 27-year-old female passenger accused one of its drivers of sexually assaulting her. However the ban is not in connection with the alleged attack but rather transport laws

Inventor of First Gaming Console Dies

Ralph Baer, the man known for creating the first-ever video-game console, which still serves as a blueprint for the Xboxes and PlayStations of today, has passed away aged 92. Over the course of his career, he accumulated over 150 patents and won many awards and honors

Get TIME’s The Brief e-mail every morning in your inbox

 

MONEY Taxes

As Gas Prices Go Down, Likelihood of Higher Gas Taxes Goes Up

It's no wonder that many are calling for higher gas taxes lately: Gas prices are the cheapest they've been in years, so a hike in gas taxes is less likely to drive drivers nuts.

Raising taxes is never popular. But if there was ever a way to make a tax increase more palatable to Americans, it would be with a tax hike that didn’t seem like much of a tax hike. Like, say, one that was optimally planned so that even after the tax increase was instituted, the average household wouldn’t feel like it was paying much more out of pocket than it was in the recent past.

Just such a rare opportunity is now upon us. Gas prices have plummeted—dipping under $2 per gallon in some markets, with further decreases likely—and some want to take advantage of the situation by jacking up the gas tax at both the state and federal levels. Depending on how high taxes are raised, drivers might very well still be paying less to fill up than they were a few months or a year ago. So in a way, at least theoretically, this is a tax hike that wouldn’t feel like a typical tax hike.

A recent Washington Post column pointed out that the federal gas tax has been stuck at a flat 18.4¢ since 1993. At the time, the price of a gallon of regular was about $1. “It’s been a generation since gas taxes were increased at all,” Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund, told the Post. “So they are incredibly low by historic levels.”

Over the years, many have called for increases to the federal gas tax, which has not kept up with inflation. “Inflation has effectively reduced the [gas] tax rate by about one third” over the last two decades, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation noted earlier this year. Most states have flat gas taxes as well, and critics say the revenues collected are falling well short of what’s needed to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. “At the state and local levels, gas taxes cover less than half of state and local transportation spending,” said Tax Foundation economist Joseph Henchman.

Again, there’s nothing really new about calls to raise more funds to fix roads and other infrastructure needs at the national and state levels. What is new, however, is that gas is the cheapest it’s been in years, and that projections indicate per-gallon prices will remain well under $3 indefinitely. Predictions call for a national average of $2.94 per gallon next year, which would be roughly 45¢ less than 2014 and 70¢ less what drivers typically paid in 2012.

Hence the fresh push to raise gas taxes while prices at the pump are inexpensive. As Elaine S. Povich of the Pew Charitable Trusts observed recently:

“Cheap gasoline makes such levies more politically palatable, since consumers are less likely to notice the extra burden when they are filling up.”

It must be noted that while the federal gas tax hasn’t budged in two decades, state gas taxes (and other local taxes that help support roads and infrastructure) have been increased fairly regularly. Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and West Virginia are among the states where gas taxes were hiked this year or last, and discussions are in the works to raise state gas taxes in Iowa, Utah, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and beyond. Data from the American Petroleum Institute shows that nationally, drivers pay an average of 49.28¢ per gallon when state and federal levies are added up.

While it’s unsurprising that environmental supporters and academics such as Mississippi State’s Sid Salter are renewing cries for gas tax hikes while gas prices are cheap, it’s particularly noteworthy that some Republicans seem in favor of tax increases at this opportune moment in time as well.

Last month, U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) actually criticized President Obama for refusing to consider a gas tax increase over the years. “I always thought that was ironic, that he’s willing to raise every other tax,” Thune said to the Rapid City Journal. “And then the one that actually pays for something you can see a direct benefit from, he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

More recently, Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI), who is retiring soon, it must be noted, announced he is sponsoring a bill to raise the federal gas tax by 15¢ to 33¢ by 2013. “No one likes taxes,” Petri said in a Huffington Post interview in early December:

“But the issue is whether we should pay for transportation, or cut back on spending and transportation and have less roads and poorer infrastructure, or borrow it from our kids — debt financing it and hoping someone pays the debt off at a future date. And of those choices, it seems to me that the most responsible long-term approach is to do the thing that is unpopular but necessary.”

It helps that the move won’t be quite as unpopular as it would be had the gas tax hike been introduced back when the average driver was paying $3.50 or $3.75 per gallon.

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