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Toyota Prius sales boom in Japan despite slowdown

Orders in Japan for Toyota’s new Prius hybrid have topped a booming 110,000, a major dealership chain said Saturday, in what is turning out to be a rare bright spot in the gloomy auto market.

The third-generation Prius officially rolled out in Japan just two weeks ago. But dealers are already flooded with orders, including some placed weeks in advance, according to the dealership.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest automaker, said two weeks ago that it received 80,000 advance orders, and has not updated that number.

But the Toyota Tokyo Corolla dealer said Saturday that nationwide orders at Toyota dealerships in Japan, including those of rivals, have soared to 110,000. Dealers tally their customer orders differently from the way manufacturers do.

But any way you slice it, the Prius is a hit. Toyota has set its monthly sales target for Japan at 10,000 new Prius cars — a figure that should make it the top-selling car in the country.

As the orders stack up, the company looks on track to meet or even surpass its goal and take that crown — an astonishing accomplishment for a hybrid, although the Prius is fighting competition from another new hybrid, Honda Motor Co.’s Insight.

Hybrids are in demand partly because the Japanese government began offering tax exemptions for the cars to encourage their sales earlier this year.

Parliament gave consumers added incentive Friday when it approved a cash-back rebate for trading in cars 13 years or older for greener cars.

Hybrids also promise savings on gas. In Japan, where frequent stop-and-go traffic lowers the fuel efficiency of gas-engine cars but actually raises it in hybrids, the Prius is promising nearly 90 miles per gallon (38 kilometers per liter). In heavy traffic, hybrids rely on their electric motors and thus burn no gas.

The overall Japanese auto market has been languishing for years, with vehicle sales falling to their lowest level in more than three decades last year. Demand has worsened since the U.S. financial crisis sent this nation into a recession.

Toyota, which also makes Lexus luxury models and the Camry sedan, has said it is increasing Prius production to meet demand.

But it is still expecting a 550 billion yen ($5.7 billion) loss for the fiscal year through March 2010, its second straight year in the red, because of the global auto slump and the unfavorable exchange rate in a strong yen.

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