When Toyota first introduced the Prius in Japan in 1997 and in the U.S. in 2000, the company used its image as a maker of highly reliable, high quality cars to sell the new technology to early adopters.
"The Toyota halo was the closer," says Bob Carter, Toyota's Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations for Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), U.S.A. Inc.
Now the opposite is true - Prius provides the halo for Toyota.
Toyota sold 236,000 hybrid cars in the U.S. last year - mostly versions of the Prius, although the company also sells hybrid Camrys and Lexuses.
The Japanese automaker sold fewer than 6,000 Prius first generation cars in 2000; about 15,000 in 2001.
"So it was modest in the beginning," says Carter. "But quite frankly we hit a nerve that we didn't realize how many consumers were attracted to, and today, we're selling Priuses in the hundreds of thousands and over 5 million of them globally (to date.)
Toyota isn't resting on its hybrid laurels. The company plans to introduce 19 new models globally in the next five years - and the company hopes to improve the fuel economy on the next generation of its standard-bearer Prius by an additional 10%.
The Prius will also boast an all new chassis, and a lower cost.
Carter says customers will notice something else. Hybrids will remain practical and fuel efficient, yes, but, "we can add a fun-to-drive element that doesn't bring the environmental impact or high fuel consumptions with it."
Toyota doesn't think hybrids are the only solution for a world more focused on fuel efficiency and economy. The company plans to introduce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for the California market in 2015. Toyota also has introduced an electric RAV4.
But, hybrid technology "is our core technology going forward," says Carter. He issued what he called a "friendly challenge" to the rest of the industry to catch up.
For now, Toyota is the undisputed king. More than 16% of its sales in the U.S. were hybrids. The next closed competitor is Ford, at 3%.