The Honda Insight stole a march (not a March) on the latest Toyota Prius when it arrived in Japan in early 2009. I remember seeing a TV news report here at the time implying that the Insight was not only selling better than Honda’s expectations but that, in fact, it was pretty much the only Honda model that was making it out of the showroom at all.
(Honda were not the only one struggling at that time: In the depths of winter when the prospect of a second Depression seemed very real, we heard that Lexus dealers in Kyoto had managed to sell just one single car in a whole month. Perhaps it was just a rumor, but it seemed very believable at the time.)

Anyway, it seems that the Insight has had its moment of glory: As soon as the new Prius came out, the spotlight shifted. Now it is Toyota who are beating their sales forecasts and the (cheaper) Insight is left languishing. Part of this is probably due to the Prius’ carefully-cultivated brand image. “Hybrid” and “Prius” are almost synomymous, after all. It does not help that it is also seen as an inferior car – however good its fuel economy. Apparently, Honda is working frantically on upgrades, but there are also some tuners out there who are coming up with their own as well. OK, so it might not go faster, ride better or have better economy – but it beats the pants of the standard version when it comes to looks.

The difference in the two brands can also be seen in the sold prices in the Japanese car auctions. I had a look at sold prices for the Prius S and Insight G. Taking sold price results from the last 3 months, the outcome was quite surprising:

  • Prius S list price = 2.2 million Yen.
  • Prius S average auction price * = 2.38 million Yen
  • Honda Insight G list price = 1.89 million Yen
  • Honda Insight G average auction price * = 1.75 million Yen

(* This is the average price for cars with delivery mileage only in perfect new condition. Obviously cars with greater mileage would be cheaper. If you want to explore the Japanese car auctions for yourself, click here.)

Whoah! Wait a minute. Let’s look at those Prius prices again. The auction price is higher than the new list price? What is going on there? To be honest I am really not sure, but there are a couple of guesses I will throw out there. First of all, it could be caused by demand. If you have customers beating down your door for a new Prius and Toyota can’t crank them out quickly enough, you need to get your hands on a basically new one to keep up. Another possibility would be that that maybe Toyota customers specify a whole raft of optional equipment on their Priuses which means that these ones at auction were actually worth quite a bit more than the base model to start with. But surely some of the Honda’s would also fit that pattern and yet they show depreciation.

This is all well and good, but what I am wondering is whether in the longer term both of these companies are going to be leapfrogged by Nissan, who seem to be bypassing the hybrid model almost completely and are aiming at having a range of all-electric cars. I can see how Toyota’s lead in hybrid technology would easily become a hiderance. Japanese firms are notorious for clinging to technology they have pioneered long after it has become obsolete. The MiniDisc player is a classic example of this. So Toyota wins the battle, but who will win the technology war?

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