The Toyota Prius – A History

Toyota revolutionized the automotive industry by creating the first ever large-scale production of a “hybrid” automobile. A “hybrid” automobile is any vehicle that uses both an internal combustion engine as well as an electric motor for propulsion. The largest misconception related to the Prius is that the Toyota motor company created the hybrid car concept. This is simply untrue. Cases of hybrid cars have been seen as far back as the late 1890s. The fact is, however, the Toyota Motor company was the first automaker to rise above extensive engineering and technical challenges to create the first marketable, fuel efficient, mass-produced hybrid car, the Prius.

How It All Started

The PNGV or Partnership for a new Generation of Vehicles was formed during the Clinton administration in 1993. The group involved several federal agencies and the three major American automakers, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. PNGV’s combined research efforts were aimed at bringing 80 MPG fuel efficient vehicles to market in under 10 years by 2003. Toyota was not invited to the PNGV simply because it was a US government funded initiative and Toyota is a Japanese company. A slightly scorned Toyota went home and started their Prius project.

Original Generation

Toyota revealed their first Prius concept in 1995. The Prius, which in Latin means, “to go before,” used Toyota’s unique Energy Management System, which was compromised of a gasoline engine and an electric motor combination. Japan started selling the Prius domestically in December of 1997. Model years 1998 through 2000 were available to Japanese customers only. By May of 2000, more than 40,000 sales had been recorded forcing an increase in capacity by Toyota at the onset of the Prius joining the international market. Around the time an increase of production to almost 3,000 units a month was ordered by Toyota, spring of 2000 brought the announcement of test and drive for the US market. By June, an online only ordering campaign of the Prius was established. A consumer interested in purchasing a Prius was to fill out an online request form. This was dubbed the Prius “pioneer purchase,” and was originally the only way to receive a Prius in the United States prior to spring of 2002, other than purchasing the show or demo models. Each Prius delivered to the US at this time had already been assigned a specific consumer and was promptly delivered. Costing just under $20,000 at a $19,995 retail price, three packages were offered: Standard, Base, and Touring. Capable of achieving 62mph in 13.4 seconds the Prius topped out at 99 MPH.

Second Generation

The Second Generation Toyota Prius models were introduced in Spring of 2003 at the New York International Auto Show in the 2004 model year. Using the original Prius model as a base, the second generation Prius came out with superb upgrades that garnered Toyota an additional 530 new patents. The second gen Prius is quicker and more powerful than its predecessor while somehow being ever more economical and cleaner. Sizing up to a Camry now, and built with a five-door design, wind drag was sizeably reduced in this model. Also boasting a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, the new generation Prius evolved to an HSD or Hybrid Synergy Drive. This new system created better synergy between the gasoline and electric motors, allowing the electric motor to take on a bigger role in the overall performance of the car. The prior model used mainly the gasoline engine for performance with the electric motor as the backup. HSD allowed more power and performance from the electric motor.

The Prius second gen still carried the 1.5 liter NZ series Atkinson cycle engine as its power plant, which was tweaked to offer more power. The AC electric motor was made larger by 50%. A battery pack with fewer cells and less weight offered a larger output for the bigger AC motor. Tons of features and upgrades were added to the second generation Prius, a start-stop system was put into place to kill the engine during traffic stops, or idling. An EV power mode was made available for the electric motor only to be used for up to 1.25 miles. Because of the EV option, an electric air conditioning system was brought on which could control the car’s climate without the gasoline engine running. A 15 percent fuel economy increase with a zippier 0-62mph in a time of 10.9 seconds, tops the new Prius out at 106 MPH. Toyota devised a system to charge the battery using the energy created through the heat of braking. When the brake is stepped on, the AC motor becomes a generator feeding the batter with otherwise wasted energy. 250,000-second generation Prius models had been sold before the onset of 2005. Toyota again bumped up production to roughly 180,000 cars a year.

Third Generation

Touted at the time as the most advanced mainstream car on the market, the new Prius offered greatly reduced emissions as well as higher performance. How did Toyota do it? Increasing the engine size to a 1.8 liter Atkinson cycle gas engine while overhauling the hybrid synergy system making it smaller and lighter than before. The HSD parts were 90 percent new. Toyota also employed the use of a high tensile metal to keep weight down yet allow greater powertrain efficiency. Three different driving modes were now available. EV mode runs the car for up to 1.2 miles on electric power only at up to 31 mph. Eco mode lowered throttle inputs while simultaneously adjusting the AC for better fuel economy. Power mode gave the driver peak performance when wanted or needed. The classic wedge shape of the body was kept while Toyota refined its details. Air drag was yet again reduced to improve fuel quality over previous Prius iterations. Electric drainage was limited by the adoption of LED lights. The Prius plug-in model can be charged either externally or by the car’s gas engine. A larger high voltage battery pack gives the driver the ability to travel up to 14 miles without any fuel at all.

More Competitors on the Market

Toyota’s Prius paved the way for not just hybrid vehicle technology, but electric automotive technology for all. Toyota is very proud to offer increased fuel efficiency as well as higher fuel economy in each and every Prius that is manufactured. The automotive industry as a whole had a lot of catching up to do when Toyota unveiled its baby. The Prius jumpstarted greener automotive technology and consumers are reaping the benefits. Since its unveiling in Japan in 1995, countless automakers have jumped on board the hybrid car manufacturing craze. The market has proven that not only can a car with green technology appeal to the consumers, but it can turn a reasonable profit as well. In 2016, almost every major car manufacturer now offers a hybrid of some type. American automakers are in on the act, and the European market for greener vehicles is a large one. Mercedes, BMW, and Audi now also offer hybrids, as well as their American counterparts – Ford, Lincoln, and Chevrolet. The Prius has changed the automotive industry forever. Green is now affordable. Green is good for us all.

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