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Toyota's Prius changed everything 20 years ago

Casey Williams, Tribune News Service on

Published in Automotive News

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.


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