Toyota’s Prius top-selling car in Japan last year

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TOKYO (AP) — The Toyota Prius was the top-selling car in Japan last year — the first time a gas-electric hybrid has clinched that spot.

The Japan Automobile Dealers Association said Friday that Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius was No. 1 in its ranking of sales by vehicle models — with 208,876 Prius cars sold in 2009, nearly three times the numbers sold the previous year.

Coming in second was Honda Motor Co.’s Fit, followed by the Toyota Vitz. Both aren’t hybrids but are small and fuel efficient models.

Green models have gotten a huge lift this year in Japan from a government cash-for-clunkers program and tax breaks, aimed at boosting sales during a global slowdown that has seriously hurt Japanese automakers.

The Prius was the top-selling model for every month from May last year — the month when an upgraded version hit showrooms. It is so popular buyers must wait weeks to get their Prius. Demand for the Prius has also been strong in the U.S.

Japan’s auto market has been stagnant for decades, and the perk from hybrid sales is a bright spot amid overall dismal demand.

Auto sales in Japan declined to their lowest level in 38 years last year, slumping 9 percent to 2.9 million vehicles, and falling below 3 million units for the first time since 1971, according to the association earlier this week.

Japanese automakers are looking to emerging markets such as China, India and Southeast Asia to keep demand going as prospects for growth are also weak in the U.S. and Europe.