Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
Toyota Is Far Less Climate-Friendly Than Most Americans Think
The Prius still lives large in the popular imagination.
A year ago, the Toyota Prius went from bulbous to badass. The hybrid icon got its most dramatic redesign in two decades, which dispensed with the familiar friendly and rounded look for an angular, almost menacing front end. The vehicle, which once again came in traditional hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants, earned enthusiasm from buyers and plaudits from the auto press. What Toyota didn’t do, curiously, was finally turn the Prius into a true battery electric vehicle.
The world’s largest car company has been among the slowest of the major automakers to embrace 100% electric propulsion. Yet, as Heatmap data shows, such heel-dragging hasn’t dinged Toyota’s green reputation. In our November 2023 survey, Toyota scored the second-highest on perceived sustainability of any automaker.
Audi’s E-Tron, VW’s ID.4, Kia’s Soul EV, BMW’s i3, and Hyundai’s Kona Electric were all on sale in the U.S. well before the bZ4X, Toyota’s first mass market EV. Yet none of those cars could transform American attitudes about companies that made them. While Tesla’s notoriety helped it to top our sustainability survey, the likes of Audi, Volkswagen, Kia, Hyundai, and BMW all scored below Toyota.
To be clear, Toyota certainly earned some sustainable bona fides. The Prius for years was the icon of conspicuous conscientious driving. Eventually, the car of the eco-minded became the car of anybody who wanted to get great gas mileage. In selling six million Priuses, Toyota helped countless drivers post far better mpg than they otherwise would have. And let us not forget the Toyota Mirai, which since 2014 has been the best mainstream option for anybody who wants to drive a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
But the results go to show that even at the dawn of the mainstream EV era, more goes into the popular idea of “sustainability” than purely electric cars.
Volkswagen, for example, may have introduced a popular EV with the ID.4 crossover, but many respondents surely remember the scandal over VW’s diesel emissions and punished the German giant for its misdeeds.
Or consider the case of Subaru, which was not part of this survey. The brand incessantly advertises itself as a friend of the National Park System and touts its corporate donations to climate causes. Its car show launch events and television commercials depict Subarus in outdoor environments. Given its public image, I’d have to guess that Subaru would have scored highly. Yet none of its vehicles get particularly high gas mileage. (There is a Subaru commercial that drives my wife and me crazy, in which a teacher describes her 240-mile daily carbon-spewing commute like it’s a badge of honor.) Like Toyota, Subaru was slow into the EV market; its first, the Solterra, just came out last year. It was co-developed with Toyota and is fundamentally the same car as the bZ4X.
Despite leading the charge on hybrids and hydrogen, Toyota’s electric enthusiasm has been tepid at best. Whereas many auto giants have trotted out new electrics or teased battery-powered versions of their iconic gas vehicles, Toyota’s attitude more mirrored the general public’s: We’ll just wait until the charging infrastructure makes this more practical for daily driving, thank you very much. In the meantime, the brand touts its “electrified” lineup, which, aside from the bZ4X, is made up entirely of hybrids that also burn gasoline.
And to drive the point home, Toyota has also actively worked against emissions regulations, repeatedly lobbying against such efforts. In 2021, the company settled with the U.S. government for $180 million for failing to comply with Clean Air Act regulations. Hino, a truck- and bus-making division of Toyota, was caught falsifying engine emissions data going back decades.
Seeing the lukewarm reception given many legacy carmakers’ EV offerings, it’s hard to blame Toyota for languishing in the rear, content to keep selling fossil-fuel burning vehicles for as long as it’s profitable. It also must answer a tricky question: What is the EV Prius? The hybrid standard-bearer had a clear identity as an eggshell that delivered top gas mileage. In the EV space, where even big vehicles deliver excellent mileage equivalence, it’s unclear what the Prius brand name will mean.
But pretty soon, Toyota needs to pounce. The company is clearly getting a little closer to ready: A couple of months ago I came to praise the Hilux EV, a prototype fully electric version of Toyota’s global best-selling compact truck. That project was a one-off built by engineers overseas, but it points the way to how Toyota could flex its global muscles to help turn the world fleet over to EVs. Toyota is also seen as among the most reliable carmakers — for example, Toyota and its sub-brand Lexus topped the 2023 Consumer Reportsreliability rankings. That, combined with its reputation for sustainability, could be enough to convince hesitant car shoppers to go fully electric once the brand finally rolls out EV editions of the Camry, RAV4, or, yes, the Prius.
The bZ4X might have been uninspiring, but that’s not what really matters. What matters is that Toyota is finally moving into true EVs — and soon, we hope, it will do a lot more to back up its good name among climate-friendly companies.
The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group via online panels from Nov. 6 to 13, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.