Looking Back on 20 Years of the Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius is many things to many people, and we’re going to talk about that. Before we do, however, I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to reflect on a single fact. Now, it might seem hard to believe, but the very first Toyota Prius was sold on December 10th, 1997. Nearly twenty (20) years ago, to the day. Really.

 

The Very First Prius | 1995


The very first Prius was shown at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show as a concept car. The innovative hybrid seemed like a technological tour de force for Toyota. So much so that, despite the company’s claims at the time, nobody really expected the car’s hybrid power train to reach production.

How wrong we were! A mere two years layer, the Prius concept’s high-tech gas-electric hybrid power train was in production. The new car promised astronomical fuel economy and- with the Toyota badge on the hood- rock-solid reliability.

Toyota’s little hybrid delivered on both counts- and first generation Prius (Prii?) are still a common enough sight on the roads of major US cities. In fulfilling its promises, though, the little Prius did something more than simply satisfy the demands of its buyers: the Toyota Prius became a powerful symbol of environmentalism.

And, weirdly, it was a future that a lot of people didn’t don’t want to see happen.

 

The Redneck Response to the Prius


Some people hate the Toyota Prius. Hate. Hate, despite the fact that, even twenty years on, many of the most vocal opponents of the car have never driven one. Still, they hate it. They laugh at it. And it seemed to start the minute the first Prius hit American roads as a 2000 model.

From the beginning, the backlash against the Prius was visceral. Bumper stickers reading things like “Cool Prius! -no one ever” began appearing on the back of Ford F-150s, and the “rolling coalidiots people began targeting the little hybrids for “foggings”.

Check out this video, with over 600,000 views.

 

Diesel Drivers Roll Coal on Toyota Prius | Video


It’s easy to understand why the car touched a nerve. The Prius was the first loud and clear signal that the electric future was on its way- and there would be no room in that future for the excess of lifted pickups and smokestacks.

I could go on and on here about the (very astutely) perceived threat that the Prius and its success posed to rural American “culture”, but I’ll leave that to smarter men and simply point to the results of the 2016 US Presidential election as evidence that rural America is very, very angry about being relegated to the dustbin of history. Instead, I’d like to focus on the people who welcomed a cleaner, brighter, and better future with open arms.

 

A New Kind of Status Symbol


Celebrities- often called “the Hollywood Elite” by people with irresistibly attractive cousins- loved the Prius. The little Toyota became the go-to vehicle for people who wanted to seem, smart, forward-thinking, and progressive. So much so that some celebrities even skipped their usual limos and drove a Prius to the red carpet awards shows!

Sure, some people may have taken that a bit too far and unwittingly inspired a South Park roasting, but that was easily forgiven in the face of the massive leap forward that a mainstream electric hybrid car represented.

 

Gerald Gets a Hybrid


 

Over the course of its twenty years with us, the Toyota Prius has seen its share of highs and lows. After the economy tanked in 2008 and gas prices soared, Toyota saw a sharp increase in hybrid sales and invested heavily in the Prius brand. A few years later, the larger Prius V wagon was launched, along with the more compact Prius C. The company also launched the “more” electric Prius PHEV, and predicted that Prius would become the best-selling nameplate in the US by 2020.

 

The Toyota Prius Family


It’s almost 2018 now, however, and it’s safe to say that Prius will not be the best-selling brand Toyota hoped it would be. As our own Steve Hanley put it in February 2016, “With low prices at the pump, Prius’ consumer sales sank 16% last year- and show no sign of recovering any time soon!”

Despite slowing sales, Toyota continues to advance the cause of electrification with hybrid versions of its popular Camry sedan and Highlander SUV, as well as its entry-lux Avalon model.

Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine Toyota going forward with a full line of Prius models, as it once contemplated. It’s even harder, though, to think that cars like the Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Volt and Bolt would exist today without the success and influence of the Toyota Prius. It’s certain that the Hyundai Ioniq wouldn’t exist! As such, it might be argued that the Prius’ greatest success is still to come- it laid the foundation for the electric future that Tesla, Cummins, Volvo, and others have built their futures upon. That’s a huge deal, and something Toyota probably didn’t even imagine when they unveiled that first Prius back in 1995.

What about you guys? Are you Prius fans? What do you think the car’s legacy will be, and will we still be talking about it 100 years later, the way we talk about the Model T? Let us know what you think in the comments, below.

 

Original content from Gas 2.

 

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.