The Prius may not appear the most exciting car ever launched by Toyota, but it is unquestionably one of its most important. For starters, its debut in 1997 marked the arrival of the first mass-produced hybrid car. It also actively demonstrated and promoted the environmental and efficiency benefits of such technology, which led to countless other manufacturers following Toyota down the hybrid path.
While no rival hybrid has subsequently made as much of a mark as the Prius, it’s still a car that is frequently overlooked or easily dismissed by many – often as a result of its styling, or its lack of obvious enthusiast appeal.
There is much that is worth knowing about the Prius, however, ranging from its elegantly engineered hybrid system to how it has evolved over time. Want to find out more? Read on for our quick guide to the four generations of this notable petrol-electric hybrid.
TOYOTA PRIUS: THE FIRST GENERATION XW10 (1997-2003)
In 1993, Toyota launched a new project codenamed ‘G21’. The aim was to come up with a car fit for the 21st century, for which the design discussions revolved primarily around environmental issues and energy usage. Such a forward-thinking car would also need a suitably next-generation powertrain, ultimately leading the company to develop the ‘Toyota Hybrid System’.
The THS made use of both petrol and electric power and granted improved efficiency, low emissions, silent pure electric operation and a long range. Key to the system’s capabilities was a clever power-split device that could seamlessly control the flow of torque between the car’s efficient 1.5-litre petrol engine, the electric drive motor, a generator and the driven wheels.
A THS-equipped prototype car, called the Prius, was subsequently unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995 – and a production version followed in 1997. Its hybrid system delivered an average consumption of 57.6mpg and CO2 emissions of a then-impressive 114g/km of CO2.
Due to its efficiency and environmental credentials, the Prius was an immediate hit. Toyota took 3,500 orders in the first month alone, which was three times its initial target; when production stopped, more than 123,000 had been sold. Hybrids were admittedly not a new concept, having been around since the late 1800s, but the Prius proved itself the first effective and commercially successful car of its kind.
TOYOTA PRIUS: THE SECOND GENERATION XW20 (2003-2009)
Although the first-generation Prius had proven the advantages of hybrid technology, Toyota felt there was much that could be improved. So much so, in fact, that it redesigned the entire car and its hybrid system – and, in the process, registered 530 new patents.
Underpinning this new Prius was a second-generation hybrid system, dubbed ‘Hybrid Synergy Drive’. It featured an electric drive motor which was 50 per cent more powerful than its predecessor, significantly boosting the Toyota’s performance. It also reduced the reliance on the petrol engine which, in conjunction with upgrades such as a lighter yet more energy-dense battery, further improved its efficiency and capability.
The gains were significant; Toyota claimed the second-gen Prius was capable of averaging 65.7mpg, while CO2 emissions fell to 104g/km. The 0-62mph time also fell from 13.4sec to 10.9sec, making the Prius feel much snappier.
Crucially, Toyota completely revised the exterior styling – ditching the gawky saloon body in favour of a larger, sleeker and more practical hatchback. This, in conjunction with the improved powertrain and new features such as a colour multimedia screen, made the Prius a more compelling choice. Evidently so; by 2008, cumulative sales exceeded one million.
A more interesting figure, that said, was achieved earlier in 2004: a Prius reached 130.794mph, on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and set a new world land speed record for hybrid cars.
TOYOTA PRIUS: THE THIRD GENERATION XW30 (2009-2015)
In order to continue mitigating the environmental impacts of its vehicles, Toyota reworked the HSD yet again to deliver improved efficiency. The company went through the entire system with a fine-tooth comb; 90 per cent of the components being redesigned, resulting in a third-generation HSD which was smaller, lighter and more effective.
Toyota also upped the engine size from 1.5 to 1.8 litres, which particularly helped increase torque at low speeds, and outfitted it with advantageous features such as an electrically driven and controllable water pump. Unsurprisingly, both the fuel consumption and emissions improved; the Prius now claimed an average economy of 72.4mpg, while CO2 emissions were now just 89g/km.
It wasn’t just the economy that improved, as overall system power climbed by 24 per cent to 134bhp. This, in conjunction with the improved torque, knocked 0.4sec off the 0-62mph time. Revamped underpinnings served up increased handling capabilities and stability, too.
Externally, the basic profile of the second-generation car remained – but restyled panels and sharp new lines modernised the look of the Toyota. Nods to helping the environment could now be found inside as well, as the third-generation Prius made use of plant matter-derived plastics for its interior trim.
A seven-seat version called the Prius+ was later introduced, as well as a version called the Prius Plug-In. This had a larger battery, which permitted up to 14 miles on zero-emissions driving at up to 50mph. In 2013, no doubt aided by these new models, global Prius sales topped the three million mark.
TOYOTA PRIUS: THE FOURTH GENERATION XW50 (2015-)
There were big changes in store for the fourth-generation Prius. Key to this iteration was the adoption of the Toyota New Global Architecture platform, which lowered the car’s centre of gravity. This, coupled with new features such as double-wishbone rear suspension, improved the car’s handling, ride quality and stability.
The new underpinnings also granted increased comfort and interior space, as well as a better driving position. More aggressive styling made the Prius more distinctive and interesting, while the redesigned cabin delivered a far more pleasant and upmarket atmosphere than that found in its predecessor.
Once again, the hybrid system was given a comprehensive overhaul. The fourth-generation HSD was made even smaller, lighter and more capable, while adjustments to the petrol engine led to a world-best thermal efficiency of 40 per cent. CO2 emissions fell further, to 70g/km, while the average economy was a mighty claimed 94.2mpg. An electric all-wheel-drive system was made available in some markets in 2018, too, making the Toyota a more viable option for those regularly dealing with ice or snow.
All in, the fourth-generation version surpassed its predecessor in every respect – and the Prius continues to be a crucial model in the brand’s range.
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