The Prius arguably got the automotive “going green” conversation started over 20 years ago. Four Toyota Prius generations later, it’s still going strong.
There is a lot of news these days on cars “going green” and bragging about the latest efficiencies and electric powerplants. But the Toyota Prius arguably got the conversation started more than 20 years ago. The Prius first appeared on Japanese roads in 1997, landing here in the United States for the 2000 model year. While the Honda Insight technically hit US shores before the Prius, it stumbled thanks to oddball looks and tiny size. Toyota quickly surpassed Honda on the hybrid electric vehicle sales front and has gone on to produce four Toyota Prius generations since then.
Toyota kicked off the hybrid segment with the Prius’ combined hybrid configuration meaning it can run on gas, electricity or both. In fact, Prius is Latin for “first” or “original”. Now sold in 90 markets worldwide with more than 6 million cumulative units sold, the Prius represents an important historical building block in the ever-growing push to wean cars off fossil fuel. With an EPA estimated city fuel economy figure of 58 miles per gallon (mpg) for the 2021 Prius L Eco, it’s fair to say the Prius is doing its part. Let’s look at how Toyota Prius generations have evolved over the years.
1997 marks year one of the Prius in Japan, while it wasn’t until 2000 that American drivers could buy one. Debuting with a 1.5-liter, 72 horsepower gasoline engine combined with a battery-powered electric motor, the first Toyota Prius generation was marketed as “Just in time for the 21st Century”, promoting its agenda of reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Gen-one Priuses were designed as a sort of notchback 4-door sedan, positioned between Toyota’s Corolla and Camry price-wise. The Prius could run on electricity only, in low-load conditions up to 25 mph and achieve more than 40 mpg. It used a combination of wind-cheating sheet metal, more efficient systems, and regenerative braking to hit these mileage targets. For instance, the water pump ran on electricity instead of the more typical serpentine belt, to eliminate friction losses.
Classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) by the Environmental Protection Agency, the XW10 Prius was the first vehicle to qualify owners for a $2,000 income tax deduction. This was a key step in gaining acceptance with American consumers who were not initially wowed by the poky 13 second run to 60.
Marked by a complete redesign, the XW20 ushers in the unique look of all Toyota Prius generations since then thanks to two key elements. One is the Kammback design feature of the Prius, defined by the back glass sloping down and ending abruptly with a vertical surface. The other is what Toyota coined a “triangle silhouette” where the apex of the vehicle is above the driver’s head with similar slopes running to the front and rear. This new look gives the Prius it’s singular look while improving aerodynamics including a slippery 0.26 drag coefficient.
The second Toyota Prius generation was equipped with Toyota’s Hybrid System II plus 530 vehicle patents, which combined to boost efficiency and increase city fuel economy to 48 mpg. Part of this was due to an industry first all-electric air conditioning compressor and a lighter weight nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. Thanks to a new Super ULEV classification and California Air Resources Board certification as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, the second-generation Prius is ranked as one of the cleanest vehicles sold in the US based on smog-forming emissions.
It’s during this period that Prius sales start to accelerate, hitting 1 million global units sold in 2008. New looks, a larger size, increased power and higher efficiency turned the Prius into something of a style statement for celebrities, which only served to increase visibility and popularity.
While the third Toyota Prius generation didn’t change much styling-wise, it did receive powertrain upgrades, new body styles, and other improvements. The 4-cylinder gas motor increased displacement from 1.5 to 1.8-liters for nearly 100 hp, bringing the 0-60 time closer to 10 seconds. On the electric front, Consumer Reports examined lifetime and replacement cost of the Prius battery pack. They found 200,000 miles to be the approximate lifetime and a cost ranging from $500 for low-use salvage yard batteries to around $2500 for dealer replacement.
The XW30 lineup expanded to include the Prius V, Prius C and Prius Plug-In Hybrid. The Prius V was effectively an extended wagon-ish version of the standard Prius bringing 50% more interior space. At the other end of the size scale, the Prius C was closer in dimension to Toyota’s Yaris which meant lower pricing. 2012 marked the first plug-in hybrid version labelled the Prius PHV which swapped the NiMH battery for a lithium-ion pack that could be fully charged in 3 hours from a 110-volt household plug.
Third-gen Prii (the preferred plural of Prius selected by the public in 2011) offered new features like a roof-mounted solar panel that could power the electric-powered A/C and cool the cabin; even when the car is off. Toyota also rolled out driver assistance features like curbside parking assist, lane keeping assist and dynamic radar-based cruise control. Furthering the environment focused ethos, XW30 Priuses used plant-derived ecological bioplastics for the interior trim which used wood- or grass-based raw material instead of petroleum.
Named a Best Value by Consumer Reports in 2012 and 2013, this Toyota Prius generation broke the 50-mpg mark thanks to improved aerodynamics and the more efficient motor. Owners could also now select one of three driving modes to suit their needs. EV Mode for electric only operation at low speed, Eco Mode for those looking to stretch each gallon of gas, and Power Mode to achieve the best performance.
The most recent in a long line of Toyota Prius generations, XW50 Prii are based on an all-new platform, the Toyota New Global Architecture (TGNA), bringing a host of improvements. TGNA gives the fourth-gen Prius a lower center of gravity, a 60% increase in structural rigidity thanks to new welding and adhesive techniques and firewall sound-proofing that matches engine noise frequency to cancel it out.
For this new generation, the signature “triangle silhouette” remains, but incorporates a more aggressive front-end design and overall, more sculpted look. Modern options include an 11.6” multimedia interface, color head-up display and wireless charging. Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of active safety features is also standard across the board, as of 2021, and includes pre-collision detection, lane departure alert, lane tracing assist and more.
In 2016, the second-generation plug-in version was released under the Prius Prime name, achieving 133 miles per gallon equivalent when running in all-electric mode which was the best rating at the time. All-wheel drive also joined the Prius family in 2019 via a dedicated rear axle electric motor, giving the Prius a foothold – pun intended – in the Snow Belt.
As Toyota Prius generations have evolved over the past 20 years, so has the rest of the automotive landscape. There’s more competition and more interest than ever in how to move the automobile forward, as fuel efficiently as possible. The current Prius generation still represents excellent fuel economy, a spacious cabin and class-exclusive all-wheel drive. Combine that with Toyota’s well-earned reputation for quality and it’s a safe bet to say the Toyota Prius has a bright future.