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Lexus CT 200h outsells Toyota Prius in China!

Press accounts detailing the Toyota Prius sales juggernaut all over the world are too numerous to link here, but, believe it or not, that is not the case in China, the world’s largest automobile market. Buried in a Reuters article on Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG’s hopes for its China-only Venza Denso Denza luxury electric car is this fascinating and totally unexpected factoid:

As a sign of the promise of Daimler and BYD’s approach (of focusing on a luxury “green” car, Daimler AG’s Beijing design chief Olivier) Boulay points to the upscale Lexus gasoline-electric hybrid car model called CT 200h. Despite starting at about 280,000 yuan ($44,300), the car outsold the Prius, which is about 50,000 yuan ($7,900) cheaper. Sales of the Lexus hybrid totaled 3,900 cars for the three months ended April 30, compared with the 450 Prius cars that Toyota sold during the same period.

In other words, those numbers indicate that, between February 1 and April 30 of this year, Lexus CT 200h outsold Toyota Prius by a 17 to 2 ratio! This topsy-turvy state of affairs is surely unique in the world and unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Ever-shifting Chinese laws are a huge factor in this unusual situation. As China Auto Web explains:

From 2005 to 2009, FAW-Toyota had built the second generation Prius in Changchun of Northeast China. High-priced (starting at 259,000 yuan, or $39,000) and receiving no government subsidies, the hybrid delivered only about 3,700 units in China in four years…

(T)he new (3rd-generation) Prius, a non-plug-in with a 1.8-liter gasoline engine, is barred from receiving China’s green car subsidies, which go only to models with engine displacements smaller than 1.6 liter and plug-in hybrid or pure electric models…

Besides pricing, Toyota seems also worried about losing its hybrid tech secrets. An official of FAW-Toyota has recently been quoted as saying, “Certain government agencies have requested detailed information about the third generation Prius, while Toyota has been reluctant to disclose key data.”

Thus, both Prius and CT 200h are subject to 25% import duties, and status and brand-conscious Chinese customers in that general price range may as well splurge on a Lexus CT. And, while long-term, Daimler AG’s plans may well succeed, it’s by no means a sure-shot success. After all, Daimler is teaming up with China’s BYD, notable for its stock holdings by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and its electric car offerings. Yet, as Yale Zhang, head of the Shanghai-based consulting firm, Automotive Foresight noted:

…the idea to market Denza green cars as luxury vehicles is “reasonable”. But are Chinese consumers going to accept Denza as a premium brand?

“It’s a brand-new name and everybody knows BYD is behind it,” Zhang says, citing BYD’s imprint as a low-cost manufacturer.

Still, for now, Lexus is seemingly well-placed and ahead of the game insofar as luxury hybrid gasoline-electric C-segment vehicles. Rival hybrid and battery electric vehicles from its German rivals are still some way off, as is Infiniti’s dual-pronged plan of a European-built non-hybrid, Mercedes A-Class-derived hatchback and a Nissan Leaf-derived BEV sedan.

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