Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid passed Honda Motor Co.'s Civic to become the best-selling vehicle line in California, the largest U.S. auto market, for the first time as higher fuel prices and new versions of the car drove up demand.
Toyota, the world's largest seller of gasoline-electric autos, sold 60,688 Prius models to Golden State drivers in 2012, 78 percent more than a year earlier, based on registration data from Experian Automotive. Prius ranked fourth in 2011, behind Civic, Honda's Accord and Toyota's Camry, according to the California New Car Dealers Association's Auto Outlook report.
California, which buys more than 10 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S., has been the top overseas market for Prius since sales of the fuel-efficient car began in 2000. The Prius hatchback and Aqua, sold in the U.S. as the Prius c subcompact, also ranked as Japan's No. 1 and 2 best-selling vehicles last year.
"With escalating gas prices in California, the launch of Prius family could not have come at a better time for our customers," Bob Carter, Toyota's senior U.S. vice president, said in an e-mailed statement. Prius's popularity "is a big reason why we remain bullish on hybrids going forward."
Honda sold 57,124 Civics in California in 2012, a 52 percent jump from the year before, according to the Experian data.
Disruptions at California refineries last year pushed gasoline in the state to a record $4.67 a gallon on Oct. 9, according to AAA. Prices have since eased, averaging $3.64 a gallon on Jan. 15, compared with a national average of $3.29, based on data from the largest U.S. motorists' group.
Combined sales of Prius hatchbacks, v wagons, c small cars and the Prius plug-in hybrid totaled 236,659 in 2012, up 73 percent from earlier. Toyota has said the Prius line may surpass Camry, the best-selling U.S. car for the past 11 years, by the end of decade.
Toyota for now will continue to rely on Japan to supply Prius models, Jim Lentz, who leads the Toyota City, Japan-based company's U.S. sales unit, said today at Deutsche Bank's Access Global Auto Industry Conference in Detroit.
Adding Prius production in the U.S. "is not on the horizon today," Lentz said. The company has sufficient production capacity in Japan to meet U.S. demand for now, and Prius requires "trickier" parts supply preparation, he said.
Toyota's U.S. sales unit is in Torrance, California.