So much so that A-list celebrities clamoring to get in the driver’s seat of the latest trendy eco-icon, the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid, have found themselves cast in the unusual role of waiting in line.

Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, initially didn’t bother trying to track down one of the scarce hybrids, figuring his chances of securing a new Prius were too low, says one Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. spokesman.

Toyota to boost Prius production.

Stewart is slated to take delivery this week. But the generally long waiting lists throughout the U.S. are prompting Toyota to figure out a way to boost production for the ’05 model year.

The auto maker already had upped its global production target for ’04 to 50,000 units from initial estimates of 36,000, but increased demand could push that number significantly higher, the spokesman says.

Toyota has sold 21,783 Priuses in the year’s first six months, a figure that has been constrained by available capacity at Toyota’s Tsutsumi, Japan, plant, which also builds the Camry.

Options for increasing production include reallocating some production of the Camry to another plant, or increasing the plant’s overall capacity.

Moving some or all of Prius production out of Tsutsumi is a less feasible option due to the concentration of the supply base in Japan for Prius-specific parts. A decision on just how Toyota will bump up Prius production should come within the month, the spokesman says. Such a move would go into effect for the ’05 model year, which begins in October.

Toyota says the Prius also is selling better than expected in Europe, a market that traditionally favors diesels for fuel economy. Sales there are running at an annualized rate of just under 10,000 units, about the same pace as in Japan.

“The popularity of the Prius really took us by surprise,” the spokesman says. “We weren’t prepared for it.”

Toyota cites the larger size of the new-for-’04 hybrid, its favorable media reception and the current U.S. consumer environment for Prius’s strong sales.

“There’s no denying that higher gasoline prices have had an impact,” the spokesman says. “It’s really obvious. How much, I don’t know.”

And, he adds, the fact that the Prius has become the “darling of the celebrity crowd” hasn’t hurt either.

Whether demand for the Prius will slacken or become more heated when Toyota releases more hybrid options is unclear. The auto maker this fall will begin selling hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX 330 cross/utility vehicles.

Toyota expects the hybrid Highlander to sell in the ballpark of 25,000 units annually, Don Esmond, TMS senior vice president and general manager, tells Ward’s.