An Automotive Icon

The Prius marks 20 years of reduced emissions, saved gasoline and – even more importantly – a reimagining of what a car can be
by Dan Miller
Sept/Oct 2017
An Automotive Icon
2001 Prius
The Ford Model T. The Chevrolet Corvette. The Porsche 911. The Toyota Prius.
What do these four fundamentally different vehicles have in common? All are automotive icons. And the last on that short list is celebrating its 20th birthday.
Yes, a full two decades have passed since the original Prius — code named G21, for “a car for the 21st century” — made its debut in 1997. And Toyota vehicles that employ its breakthrough hybrid powertrain, scoffed at by some industry experts as a mere science experiment, have now eclipsed the 10 million-unit mark.
The need for alternative fuel vehicles that go further and pollute less seems obvious today given the heightened awareness of carbon dioxide’s impact on the world’s climate. But the first steps in 1990 that would lead to the launch of the original Prius seven years later were, in truth, more like a leap of faith.
“Toyota recognized in the 1990s that sustainable transportation would become a huge challenge in the coming decades,” says Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America. “Those realizations proved accurate and, if anything, even more profound considering what we know today.”
Early Innovation
In its initial iteration, the Prius was positioned as a practical family vehicle. Its innovative Toyota Hybrid System combined a 1.5-liter gas-fueled engine with an electric motor powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Calty, Toyota’s Southern California Design studio, shaped its body with a low coefficient of drag of just 0.29. What it might have lacked in power it more than made up for in efficiency, returning an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 41 mpg.

2017 Prius Prime

Toyota brought the first Prius to the U.S. in 2000, the same year the massive Hummer H2 was the hit of the North American International Auto Show and gasoline cost just $1.50 per gallon. Yet it was embraced by leading-edge environmentalists and tech-savvy professionals intrigued by its “Prius/Genius” ad campaign. Two years later, Toyota’s worldwide hybrid sales topped 100,000 units.
Then, in the fall of 2003, the second-generation Prius went on sale and hybrid technology went mainstream. It was more powerful, yet even more efficient. And its distinctive wedge profile was even more slippery. Motor Trend named it the “2004 Car of the Year.” Car and Driver added it to its prestigious “10 Best” list. And the Detroit auto writers named it the “North American Car of the Year.”
Meanwhile, the Prius became the first hybrid to be certified by the IRS for a tax deduction. The California Department of Motor Vehicles said its owners could get a sticker that would allow them to drive solo in carpool lanes. And the car secured its status as an automotive icon when Hasbro announced it would make a Prius-shaped game piece for its similarly iconic board game “Monopoly.”
In 2005, Toyota’s worldwide hybrid sales topped 500,000 units. Just three years later that cumulative total doubled to 1 million.
The third-generation Prius made its world debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit at the start of 2009 and went on sale in the fall. It adopted a new platform that delivered sharper handling and enhanced stability. The hybrid system’s output jumped to 134 horsepower and fuel efficiency improved to 50 mpg. And, to boost the wow factor, it introduced a solar-powered ventilation fan that helped cool the interior when parked in the sun. That same year, Toyota’s global hybrid sales passed the 2 million-unit milestone.
Hybrid Family
Meanwhile, Toyota began to broaden the Prius brand with a family of hybrid vehicles, including the Prius Plug-in that could be driven in full electric mode, the compact and affordable Prius c and the versatile and roomier Prius v. Global hybrid sales topped 4 million units in 2012, 5 million in 2013 and 7 million in 2014.
Then, in 2015, the company raised the bar once again when it rolled out the fourth-generation Prius. It was the first Toyota vehicle to benefit from the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) with improved dynamic performance, a lower center of gravity and a stronger structure. The nickel-metal hydride battery pack was replaced with lithium-ion. A wrap-around dash, form-hugging seats and enhanced visibility made for a more engaging driving experience. And a lighter, more compact and more efficient hybrid powertrain delivered better fuel economy, reduced emissions and lower cost.
A year later, the Prius Prime — a plug-in version of this highly refined hybrid — joined the fold, along with its 25-mile EV only range and 133 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) fuel economy rating. It earned “World Green Car” status in April this year, one month after Toyota sold its 10 millionth hybrid vehicle worldwide.
It’s been a remarkable run for a remarkable car. And while the millions of tons of reduced carbon dioxide emissions and millions of gallons of reduced gasoline consumption are impressive, its lasting impact will likely be far more profound. After all, it delivered on the original project team’s ambitious dream to do what was necessary, rather than simply what was possible at the time.
So happy birthday, Prius! We can hardly wait to see what your next 20 years will bring.
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