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The Prius Story

The common combustion engine has revolutionised our world over the last century, from powering aristocracy on their first tentative miles, to today’s affordable and reliable workhorses. Unfortunately, as the use of cars and fossil fuels has increased, so has the impact on our environment. So in 1993, Toyota outlined a new target to build a low-emission car for a cleaner future.

In four short years a pioneer was born: The Prius Hybrid.

Understandably, in a world accustomed to driving petrol and diesel cars, the Prius’ revolutionary petrol and electric power caused quite a stir. Up until this point, manufacturers had endeavoured for decades to harness the two energy sources into cars – and for decades they’d failed. In 1997 however, Toyota were the first to successfully overcome the many engineering challenges and subsequently launched the Prius, the world’s first mass market hybrid.

Ready for the 21st Century

As an innovator, the first generation model was designed to stand out – a formula newer evolutions would repeat over the years. The Californian studio responsible gave the environmentally friendly car the distinctive look it deserved: a high-booted profile, arching roofline, sharp creased sides and a slippery drag coefficient of Cd 0.29.

Under the small sedan body sat a specially designed hybrid system consisting of a fuel-efficient VVT-i 1.5-litre petrol engine and electric motor. This integrated package was paired with a generator and a powerful nickel-metal hydride battery, neatly tucked behind the rear seats.

The Prius’ Hybrid system had a host of clever fuel-saving solutions: from intelligently managing the power of the engine and motor to suit driving conditions, to switching the engine off when idling at a stop. But its ‘piece de resistance’ was its regenerative braking system: here kinetic energy – which previously would have been wasted as heat – was captured and turned into electricity to recharge the battery, a remarkable piece of on-the-move ‘recycling’.


Making you feel electric

For drivers, this translated into a uniquely enjoyable driving experience. At low speeds, they could navigate cities in a satisfying electric calm and, as speeds increased, the reassuring petrol-power – all with the simplicity and intuitiveness of a conventional car.

Sitting inside the cabin felt fittingly futuristic. The binnacle that housed important information, such as speed and warning indicators, was now mounted centrally an easy glance away on the dashboard. Underneath sat a large LED power meter display, providing occupants with an unrivalled view of how electric and petrol power was being deployed and recharged around the hybrid system.

Advertising straplines at the time declared the new Prius “the forerunner of fossil-fuelled automobiles of the 21st Century”, and how accurate they would prove to be. Exports from Japan began in 2000, and environmentally conscious Americans in particular took the ground-breaking Prius to heart, as well as many famous faces who – through association – thrust the car into the spotlight.

"The world waited with baited breath to see how Toyota could possibly improve on such a radical concept"

Ushering in a new era

When the time came in 2003 for the new model to be revealed, the world waited with baited breath to see how Toyota could possibly improve on such a radical concept. For the engineers, it was a daunting challenge and an incredible opportunity. The task was to broaden the Prius’ appeal through enhanced environmental credentials, improved performance and better fuel consumption.

The only way to do this was to start with a clean sheet of design, headlined by a more advanced second-generation hybrid system and a total of 530 new patents.

As hoped, the new system – now known as Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) – brought a raft of changes. Improvements to the engine, battery pack, as well as a 50% more powerful electric motor, meant the Prius was not only faster and more responsive, but at the same time more frugal, boasting world-leading fuel efficiency, an increased electric-drive range (2km) and a reduction in CO2 emissions (104g/km).

Out went the sedan body to be replaced with a longer, wider and more flowing hatchback shell. The aerodynamic body (now boasting a Cd value of 0.26) was super-strong and its 5-star Euro NCAP crash test results equalled the highest ever score in the class.

A technical tour de force

Not only did the new Prius showcase Toyota’s world-leading environmental know-how, it was placed on a pedestal for technical innovation, and remains there today.

Taking a bow were a number of world firsts: Intelligent Park Assist (IPA) – a system designed to assist drivers safely into parking spaces; Steering Assisted Vehicle Stability Control (S-VSC) – an advanced safety system that unified control of the power steering and anti-skid systems; and an electric air-conditioning system that still operated when the engine was switched off at idle.

Inside, there was even more space for a family of five to spread out. The centrally mounted binnacle had grown wider and now a colour multimedia screen took centre stage in the large futuristic dashboard. Models across the range were laden with the kind of specification you’d have difficulty finding on top-of-the-range executive cars; features such as cruise control, premium audio systems, satellite navigation, hands-free calls and a rear-view monitor afforded owners the feeling of motoring nirvana.

It was clear that during the five years the second-generation Prius was on sale that our hybrid technology was here to stay. Worldwide customer satisfaction surveys, such as the JD Power, proved that, along with increasing sales figures, customers around the world were really enjoying life with hybrid.

"Incredibly, first-month orders defied all projections and sales reached 180,000 (against a target of 10,000) while waiting lists stretched to seven months."

A world-beater gets better

In 2009, the third iteration of the Prius took to the roads. Incredibly, first-month orders defied all projections and sales reached 180,000 (against a target of 10,000) while waiting lists stretched to seven months. The new car had captured people’s imaginations, and an eco-car incentive launched by governments in the same year hadn’t hurt sales either.

The car’s silhouette had largely remained, the flowing curves of the second generation had gone, to be replaced with a confident new stance full of sharp lines and edgy surfaces – a look to power the world’s best-selling hybrid into a new decade.

Under the skin, it was obvious the Prius’ engineers weren’t resting on their laurels either; every aspect of the car had been honed, refined and improved upon. For better high-speed fuel efficiency and low-speed torque (pulling power and response) the engine size had been increased to 1.8-litres, while 90% of the Hybrid system components were new, saving weight and space.

Not for the first time, a new Prius demonstrated genuinely innovative touches; under the bonnet, Toyota’s first electric water pump and exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR) system reduced internal engine friction to deliver a reduction in fuel consumption, while tech lovers would fall for the solar-powered roof panels that reduced the build-up of cabin heat when parked by activating the Prius’ air conditioning system – very cool!

Electricity consumption fell by 30% thanks to widespread use of LED lighting throughout, and Prius was the first car to be constructed using injection-moulded eco plastics derived from plant matter (in place of petroleum), contributing to our continued efforts to reduce emissions and promote sustainability.

Prius rewrites the rules again

Just as the original Prius rewrote the rulebook back in 1997, the all-new fourth-generation model elevates the pioneering hybrid back where it belongs: at the forefront of cutting-edge design, efficiency and innovation.

Showcasing our advanced Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) – which revolutionises the way new Toyotas are built and how they look and feel on the road – the new Prius takes the hybrid driving experience to another level thanks to a lower centre of gravity, increased body rigidity and enhanced suspension.

And it doesn’t stop there. Our new Toyota hybrid System takes this sleek dynamic even further with a smoother, more linear power delivery, quicker responses and a sport mode that allows the Prius to intelligently react when a driver’s demands increase.

In 2012, the Prius became a family of three with the addition of two derivatives: the Prius+ and Prius Plug-in. Benefitting from more powerful lithium-ion batteries, the next chapter in Prius’ story looked to widen its audience, allowing more to experience the unique qualities of Toyota Hybrid.

Asthetically, the Prius-Plug-in was closely modelled on its long-standing sibling, but the big news was that the batteries could now be charged from an external source as well as the hybrid system. For those wanting to enjoy longer distances on electric-only power – without the worry of running out of charge – the Plug-in was the solution. Its larger batteries provided up to 14 miles of satisfying zero-emissions driving at up to speeds of 80km/h – without any range anxiety or change in driving style.

Offering more boot space and enough room for seven people, the Prius+ also wore a familiar look but with a more elongated and squared-off rear design and subtle styling differences. Appealing to growing families who needed more space, without sacrificing any environmental credentials, the Prius+ was a welcome addition to the range and, importantly, performance wasn’t impacted by the extra weight, as the powerful batteries kept pace on a par.

Looking to the future

It’s fair to say that in its relatively brief 18 years on sale, the Prius has done enough to write its name in the history books as one of the defining cars of the last 100 years. At first, not everyone shared our belief that hybrids could make a difference to our future mobility and our planet’s wellbeing, but now most can appreciate that Prius, and the hybrid technology underneath, provides a hugely important stepping stone to a future of zero-emissions motoring.

With each generation’s introduction, the Prius has helped to reduce emissions, increase fuel efficiency, pioneer cutting-edge technology and, importantly, provide an exciting platform for feel-good driving for years to come.

Published: 17 August 2015

Information correct at time of publication.