Toyota's Prius changed everything 20 years ago

©Tribune News Service

In late 1993, Takeshi Uchiyamada was tapped to develop Toyota’s flagship for the 21st century, a car to double the Corolla’s fuel economy. It would run on batteries at low speeds, gas above 30 mph, and use the engine and brakes to recharge its batteries. The Prius, which means “to go before” in Latin, debuted in Tokyo during 1995, began production in 1997, and came to the U.S. for 2000. Much has occurred since.

“The Prius proved to the auto industry that an alternative-powertrain vehicle can be dependable, reduce vehicle ownership costs, strive for innovation and be a desired product,” said Ed Laukes, vice president of marketing, Toyota Motor North America. “Additionally, Prius proved that people care about the environment, and what they drive projects an image of who they are, and many want that image to be environmentally conscious.”

Like the Model T a century before, the first-generation 2000-2003 Prius was a wobbly little car with a tall roofline and narrow track, but even on my first drive, I knew it foretold the future. Drivers faced a sparse dashboard dominated by a digital instrument display centered beneath the windshield. Trunk space was limited because batteries were placed behind the rear seats.

After pulling down the gear lever, the car glided away silently before the engine fired up. Employing stop/start technology, the engine shut down at stoplights. The Prius posted a then-incredible 41 mpg, but accelerated 0-60 mph in a leisurely 13 seconds. It could barely keep up with freeway traffic.

Sales were slow at first, but ramped up quickly. Toyota found just 5,600 early adopters in 2000, but increased to 25,600 in 2003. By 2005, with the second edition in full bloom, 107,900 rolled out.

A complete redesign in 2004 granted mid-size interior space and a hatchback with fold-down seats that made it practical for students and grandmas alike. Center digital gauges remained, but front passengers enjoyed a center console with flip-out cupholders, flick-switch gear selector, and touchscreen controls. Fuel economy increased to 46 mpg; 0-60 mph dropped to 10 seconds. Toyota’s baby had grown into a real car.

Evolution continued with the third generation for 2010 that brought edgier styling, crash-mitigation braking, swoopy console, and 50 mpg, but also coincided with new models under the Prius umbrella. Enthusiasts could choose the smaller Prius c for under $20,000, larger Prius v with crossover interior space, or a plug-in that went 11 miles before the gas engine awoke. It delivered 95 mpg.

The current generation debuted in 2016 with an aggressive front facia, LED headlamps, and angular taillights, but the familiar profile remains. Tesla’s influence manifests a tablet-style touchscreen and revised Prius Prime plug-in that goes 25 miles on a charge while achieving 133 mpge (54 mpg in gas mode). All-wheel-drive is available – as are wireless phone charging, Apple CarPlay, and Toyota’s crash avoidance systems.

“Prius had an incredible effect on Toyota,” Laukes said. “Initially Prius was the platform to prove how great Toyota’s hybrid technology was. The quality, durability and reliability in a hybrid engine was proven. Additionally, its environmental impact brought people into the brand that normally may not have considered a Toyota.”

That could describe Rodney Esteban, president of Southern California Prius Group, who has taken his 2010 Prius to extremes.

“Initially, the vehicle was purchased as a commuter vehicle to and from grad school,” Estaban said. “I wanted the Prius to be distinctive and to help change other’s perception about it being a vehicle your grandparents drive. To make this vision a reality,, an online community of enthusiasts, became the platform where I shared modifications from day one.”

Estaban’s Prius has a SoCal vibe with its lowered air suspension, 19-inch wheels, sleek roof-mounted cargo box, and full aero body kit. Its interior was upgraded with a 1200w speaker system, birdseye maple trim, and white leather seating. Undercarriage frame bracing, strut tower bracing, and cross-drilled brake rotors improve handling.

“Since its introduction to the world, the Prius has been a disruptor in the traditional combustion sector,” Esteban said. “And, it has influenced and challenged other automotive manufacturers to follow suit. The Prius will continue to help influence and lead the way for other alternative fuel vehicles. My personal Prius will remain in our family. There is no other vehicle that can replace it.”

Along the way, the Prius became a cultural icon. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Leonardo DiCaprio drove them – as did Al Gore’s son, who famously hit 100 mph on a L.A. freeway. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Ingrassia included the Prius in his book “Engines of Change” alongside the Ford Model T, Chevrolet Corvette and Pontiac GTO. It even had a starring role in a 2006 episode of South Park where citizens got so high on their Prius-fueled environmentalism that they created a “smug cloud”.

By 2011, the smug was wearing off as competitors like the Ford Escape Hybrid, Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S arrived. Prius sales hit a record high of 147,500 in the U.S. during 2012, but declined to under 50,000 in 2019 (excluding Prius v/c) while Toyota’s overall hybrid sales increased 28.7%.

The Prius may have challenges, but there are now hybrid versions of the Camry, Avalon, Highlander, RAV4 and Corolla. Lexus offers electrified UX, NX, and RX crossovers plus the ES and LS sedans. The company’s most expensive hybrid is the exotic $97,510 LC500h coupe. Going further, the all-new 2021 Sienna minivan and Venza crossover will come hybrid only.

Consider the 2021 Venza that will come standard with AWD and the latest connectivity/safety technologies. Its powertrain delivers 219 horsepower and 40 mpg, making Venza as efficient as the original Prius with features Uchiyamada could never have imagined.

The car that came before paved the road for generations of electrified rides that include its own yet to come.

“No matter what it looks like or options offered, it will continue to be on the forefront of fuel efficiency,” Laukes said. “We will offer an electrified version of every model in our lineup by 2025, and at that time, we have a goal of 25% of our U.S. sales to be electrified vehicles. Toyota has already sold more than 15 million hybrid vehicles globally — more than every other manufacturer combined.”