History of the Toyota Prius

August 5, 2020

When we think of the term hybrid, it likely surfaces thoughts of a modern-looking vehicle. However, the term dates back to the late 19th century when car designers struggled to find adequate power to move their carriages once horses were sent to pasture. The first hybrid vehicle was developed by Ferdinand Porsche at Lohner-Weke. He successfully created a series hybrid that used hub-mounted electric motors in each wheel, powered by batteries and a generator.

But by the mid-1920s, there were no more hybrid cars being sold. It wasn’t until the passage of the 1963 Clean Air Act and the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency that efforts to decrease pollution renewed interest in the potential of hybrids. These efforts were reinforced when in 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. To meet market interest, Toyota began experimenting with a hybrid car powered by a gas turbine generator and an electric motor in Japan.

Toyota Prius Conception and First Prototypes

In the early 1990’s, Toyota established a new vision for cars to prepare for the 21st century. Global car manufacturers were anxious to develop the next-gen car that satiated the promise of electric drive. Unfortunately, since the technology had never been created before, the concept of a hybrid was in its infancy. 

Support for developing a hybrid car grew, particularly around the idea of double fuel efficiency. Toyota’s initial project was dubbed G21, short for “a global car for the 21st century.” It was led by Takeshi Uchiyamada, a bright, 47-year-old engineer schooled in applied physics, who is now the chairman of Toyota’s board of directors. His team began to develop an initial model. 

However, they struggled to develop a prototype without malfunctions. After 49 days to get the prototype working correctly, things still weren’t perfect. The team needed to double the fuel efficiency of a conventional car, improve the steadiness of acceleration, and ensure sustainable durability. Finally, Toyota debuted its hybrid concept car at the 1995 Tokyo Motor show.

The company made the decision to shorten the Prius launch deadline by two years so that customers could experience optimum fuel efficiency before the December 1997 Kyoto Conference on Global Warming. To achieve this, the team needed to figure out how to take a prototype that only ran 500 meters and turn it into a production vehicle in two years. It was no easy feat, but by August 1997 testing was nearly complete. 

Only a few months later, the first Prius model was unveiled in Tokyo. It combined a 57-hp gasoline engine with a 40-hp electric drive motor and boasted 28 kilometers per liter, double the fuel efficiency of a similar gasoline engine car. The car finally went on the market in Japan in December 1997. At launch, the Prius became the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car. This was a global game-changer for the environment. 

Toyota Prius Goes Global

Toyota’s initial plan was to debut the Pruis in Europe and North America in 2000 with a partial redesign. Unfortunately, the team found that in order to withstand high-speed operation in Europe and extreme temperatures across the US, the redesign required major changes to the hybrid system. 

The second generation was unveiled at the New York International Auto Show in April 2003 with a completely new design. The interior space was significantly increased and the car was more environmentally friendly than its previous model. The new model used an all-electric A/C compressor for cooling, a first for the industry.

Additionally, with a smaller and lighter NiMH battery, this version was more powerful and efficient. 

The first redesigned Prius was the first to be sold outside of Japan. The vehicle went on sale with a base price of $20,000 and received attention from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) who classified the car with an air pollution score of 3/10 as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV). 

Buyers were incentivized by the $2000 federal tax credit for its Ultra Low Emission Vehicle status. This was only the second mass-produced hybrid on the American market. Designers had improved the car to be slightly more powerful in order to satisfy the higher speeds and longer distances for American drivers. Although there was speculation about the Prius being a loss leader, consumers were excited about the hybrid. Hollywood stars were seen arriving for red carpet events in their Prius, enhancing the car’s status. 

Subsequent Generations and Improved Technology

Toyota didn’t stop there. The third generation of the Prius was revealed at the January 2009 North American International Auto Show. Sales for this version began in Japan in May 2009. The new and improved car came with three optional user-selectable driving modes: 


  • EV mode for electric-only low-speed operation

  • Eco mode for best fuel efficiency

  • Power mode for better performance. 

The car’s new body made it more aerodynamic while still being environmentally friendly. Its exterior used a new range of plant-derived ecological bioplastics, made out of cellulose derived from wood or grass instead of petroleum. After this model was met with positive reception, Toyota presented a 2010 model with even lower drag. To cut its body weight, the hood, hatch, and a few chassis parts were made of aluminum. A wide range of new equipment additions included navigation, a head-up display, and radar cruise control.

As time went on Toyota found that some customers preferred the option of plugging the vehicle in to drive as a pure electric car. So, two years later, they introduced the Plug-In version. The car was relatively the same, only with a 4.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack in place of the 1.3-kWh nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) pack. The plug-in could handle up to 15 miles of pure electric range, up to 62 miles per hour. The price remained reasonable too, charging customers an additional $5000 to enjoy the electric option.

Additional Models and Beyond

As buyers continued eating up the hybrid models, Toyota expanded the Prius brand with a few new models. First, the Prius V, which featured a longer body and a more spacious interior than a standard Prius. A smaller and cheaper option, the Prius C came onto the market in 2012. Its smaller engine and electric motor decreased the energy needed from the smaller battery pack. Despite it being smaller, it out-performed the original model, reaching 60 miles per hour in just under 11 seconds. 

In September 2015, the fourth and most current generation Prius model was shown in Las Vegas. It was released for sale in December of the same year. This new version featured the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) modular platform which provided a lower center of gravity with a sturdier structure. The car’s fuel efficiency was over 40 kilometers per liter. 

By the release of the fourth-generation model, nearly half the cars sold by Toyota in Japan were hybrid cars. By the end of January 2017, cumulative Toyota hybrid car sales had exceeded 10 million units. A year later, in 2018, the US Toyota market introduced an all-wheel-drive Prius with a redesign to match.

The Prius turned 23 years old in 2020. It has revolutionized the way we think about cars and energy. With models ranked as some of the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered cars in the world, the Toyota Prius will continue to evolve as the pioneer of car innovation. Interested in a Toyota Prius? We can help! Find out more about our current specials, lease options, and financing programs by contacting us. 

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