The Road Travelled: 15 Years of the Toyota Prius

Does the 2016 Toyota Prius need an introduction? Let’s be real. It’s going to be reliable and fuel efficient, so you just know it’s going to be a hit with environmentally conscious drivers. How do you know all that? Well, history repeats itself, and each generation of the Prius has been a hit. So much so that the word “hybrid” has become synonymous with “Prius.”

Looking back at the history of the hybrid, you may be surprised to know that it first hit North American roads 15 years ago, in the year 2000. Toyota launched its first hybrid, the Prius, right when that techy overconfidence that’s only possible after the hype and horror of Y2K died down. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the first mass-market hybrid to hit the North American buyers; the Honda Insight managed that feat. But here we are 15 years later and the Prius is having the last laugh.

Generation 1: The Fresh Faced, Fuel-Friendly Compact


It didn’t look like much, in fact, the first-generation Prius could be easily described as a funny looking Toyota Echo, but underneath that sleepy exterior was a lot of fuel-saving technology. Under the hood was a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a permanent magnet AC electric motor. Stashed under the rear passenger seats was the 276-volt nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery that fed that electric motor. The gasoline motor utilized a more efficient Atkinson cycle rather than a traditional Otto cycle, a trait that is still used by Toyota hybrids (and even some non-hybrids, like the 2016 Toyota Tacoma) today.

According to the EPA archives, the first-generation Prius earned 42 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway or 41 mpg combined. This made the hybrid a whopping 9 mpg more efficient than the lighter and smaller Toyota Echo. Penny pinchers loved the hybrid, as it cost just $19,995 and was affordable at the pumps.

“The [first-generation] Prius hybrid represented a practical way of lowering the environmental impact of the automobile,” said Geri Yoza, Toyota national business planning manager for advanced technology vehicles. “Our early launch strategy towards cleaner air ensured that we would be part of the solution, not pollution. The vehicle debuted at the 1996 Tokyo Motor Show and launched in Japan in December 1997.”

According to Yoza, the Prius was not just designed to get eye-popping mpg numbers. “High mpg was important, but it was not the only factor,” he said. “[It needed to be] a small vehicle with a lot of room, high fuel economy, and low emissions with no sacrifice in performance.”


But Yoza points out that Prius allowed Toyota to add another badge to their reputation.

“It allowed us to broaden our corporate image beyond Toyota’s traditional attributes of quality, dependability and reliability,” he said. “We saw the introduction of Prius as an opportunity to gain an environmental and a technology image, offering the market a clean solution without compromise. It was also an opportunity to gain public acceptance and build consumer demand for an all-new and relevant technology.”

The first-generation Prius was a surprising success early on, selling as many as Toyota could build. It managed to maintain its popularity all the way until the next-generation product.

“As we approached the launch of the second-generation Prius, the organization reflected on the first-generation model and its positive environmental impact on the brand,” said Ed LaRocque, Toyota national advanced car manager. With the first gen-Prius, the rest of the world caught onto Toyota’s hybrid idea. “Consumer confidence and the environmental benefits of hybrid technology were both increasing. Sales for the first-generation model broke through the 20,000 level for the first time in 2002.”

Generation 2: The Big Hit


If ever you needed an example of an automaker using momentum in their favor, here it is.

“We believed that the 2004 sales target of 36,000 units would be challenging and likely decline over time as competitors entered the market,” said LaRocque. “To achieve increased volume, the evolution of Prius would need to transition from ‘Early Adopters’ looking for the latest technology to the risk adverse ‘Early Majority.’” That strategy worked out. In 2004, with the second-generation Prius, U.S. sales totaled 54,000 and then doubled by 2005 to 108,000.

“Our marketing efforts included traditional advertising and non-traditional programs such as consumer and opinion leader ride and drive tours, alliances with government associations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, and strategic partnerships with organizations such as the National Parks, California State Parks and American Lung Association,” said LaRocque. “The Hollywood community continued to be important advocates, providing unsolicited testimonials for the Prius.”

Celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Larry David, David Duchovney, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks have all been seen in Toyota’s hybrid, helping the car gain more widespread appeal.

According to LaRocque, the goal was for the second-generation Prius to reach mainstream acceptance, and eventually become a halo vehicle for the Toyota brand. Looking back, it’s easy to place a checkmark next to those milestones.


The second-generation car is likely the car you think of when the word Prius is uttered. It featured that now-iconic liftback design, which gives the Prius its impressive 0.26 coefficient of drag. The car became bigger and more practical, thanks to a flat-floored cargo space. The second-generation Prius also had more power, making it easier to live with for U.S. buyers.

“It’s also worth noting, when the second-gen Prius launched, Toyota held the line on the base MSRP of $19,995, which was the base MSRP when the first-gen Prius launched in the U.S. in July 2000,” adds Sam Butto, public relations manager for Toyota. The second-generation model holds the record for Prius sales in the U.S., with 181,221 examples of the car moving in 2007.

Generation 3: Spreading the Love


Toyota built on its hybrid hype to deliver more hybrids to more people. The Prius wasn’t just a model, it was a brand. First on the scene was the Prius v, which was larger and more practical for families. It uses the same powertrain as its liftback sibling and has been popular since its launch in 2011.

The Prius c expanded the lineup in the other way. It’s a smaller, more compact model that trades space for even more fuel efficiency and is rated to get 50 mpg combined by the EPA. Since its debut in 2012, it has sold 118,302 copies in the U.S.

Then came the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, a car that featured a bigger battery and could drive completely emissions free for 11 miles, and featured a total range of 540 miles. A bit more niche of a vehicle, the car sold more than 12,000 examples every year it has been on sale since 2012.


Of course, the Prius v, c and Plug-In Hybrid all acted as the backup singers to the still-popular Prius. The 2010 Prius was rated at 50 mpg by the EPA, about a 10-percent improvement, thanks to its improved aerodynamics, a bigger engine and other smart features that allowed the car to be more fuel friendly. Some of those clever innovations include a sliding glass moonroof that’s packed with solar panels that power a new ventilation system. The Prius also featured a remotely operated air-conditioning system, so drivers can set the interior temperatures before getting in the car. Furthermore, the third-generation Prius used low-energy LEDs in its head and tail lights, helping to keep energy consumption down and MPGs high.


And despite using a bigger engine than before, the Prius was able to save some weight by using aluminum for the hood, rear hatch, front stabilizer bar and brake calipers and used super high-tensile strength steel in the inner rocker panel, center pillar and roof reinforcement.

Generation 4: The Refined Hybrid Halo

2016 Toyota Prius

For the 2016 model year, Toyota introduces its fourth-generation Prius and shows off what over 15 years of experience in the hybrid market has taught the automaker. Like the jump between the second and third generation models, the 2016 Toyota Prius will look to be about 10-percent more fuel efficient, thanks to a retuned 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and more.

“The engineering team found various ways to improve fuel efficiency,” said Beatris Diaz, Toyota marketing administrator for advanced technology vehicles. “[Including] smaller and lighter hybrid system components, more efficient combustion engines, world-leading thermal efficiency, and improved aerodynamics.”

The new Prius will be available with two battery options. The tried-and-true nickel-metal hydride battery will still be available, while a new lithium ion battery pack will be offered. Both battery packs have been redesigned to be more energy dense, and are capable of delivering more power in a smaller package. The changes go deeper than that, with the Prius featuring an all-new modular architecture that improves rigidity and allows for the usage of more lightweight materials.

But this time around, there’s more than just fuel economy to boast about when it comes to the Prius.

“To expand our Prius customer base, we determined that the vehicle has to be about more than just mpg,” said Diaz. “Buying a Prius has always been a smart decision, but we wanted to create a more emotional reaction to the car. We did this through a more expressive exterior design, an improved driving experience and a simple, yet beautiful interior interface.”


Indeed, the Prius looks futuristic, but it also sports new technology that backs up that expressive sheetmetal. One of the most important features available is the Toyota Safety Sense suite of driver assistance and collision prevention technologies. The Prius will be able to automatically brake in order to avoid a collision. Another high-end feature making its way to the 2016 Toyota Prius is adaptive cruise control.

“The striking styling, smart technology, and enhanced driving dynamics will help broaden the market for the Prius,” said Diaz.“The industry-leading fuel economy will continue to attract current customers, which are among our most loyal Toyota customers.”

Our first drive review of the Prius is on the way, but is there any doubt that it’ll hit all of its targets? If history is any indicator, this new Prius will continue to keep Toyota at the forefront of the hybrid vehicle pack.

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