The Toyota Prius was a pioneer in the hybrid gas/electric automobile industry. Developed and manufactured by Toyota Japan in the early 1990s, this eco-friendly car was the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle to hit the road, and it has since become a standard for auto manufacturers interested in providing an alternative to internal combustion engine vehicles.
The Prius is currently available in more than 40 countries and has garnered celebrity status worldwide due to its light carbon footprint and futuristic design.
The idea behind the creation
The word "Prius" is Latin for "to go" – an intentional name choice showing that Toyota planned for this car to thrive as a leader in the competitive car industry.
Although it seems like the world has been preoccupied with "going green" for decades, it was not until the early '90s when the reality of air pollution and diminishing fossil fuels started to become a common topic of conversation.
Motivated by the idea of building a cleaner, more energy efficient alternative, Toyota Japan introduced the idea of a hybrid car at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995. The Prius would be the first of its kind to offer the general public the option of gas or electric energy to get from point A to point B at a reasonable purchase price.
The reaction to this new invention was only lukewarm in Japan, so the company decided to try their luck with the U.S. market. The hope was to take advantage of releasing a hybrid vehicle at the "right place and the right time": just as U.S. drivers were becoming aware of the detrimental effects of car engine pollution and were tiring of paying the ever-increasing gas prices every year.
Shifting into such a different market meant making major changes to the existing model in order to satisfy American drivers' wants and desires. For the Prius to be successful in the U.S., engineers had to revisit every aspect, from the body to the motor just to be considered as a contender in the market.
Even after considerable testing, an early release of the Prius onto the American market did not appear promising. Engineers failed to meet the standards and expectations of a car-obsessed society like that of the U.S. Being "green" was simply not enough to get horsepower-hungry drivers to hand over their gas cards in exchange for a lower emissions level.
Determined to succeed, Toyota kept revisiting the drawing board until they were able to invent an eco-friendly solution that could check most boxes on the average American driver's wishlist.
The idea behind building the Prius was to create an elegant, safe, comfortable and fuel-efficient mode of transportation. After years of work the tireless engineers were able to create a green machine which also provided a smooth, chic ride.
Achieving this level of luxury was no easy task. The engineers at Toyota had to resolve "never seen before" problems in a very limited amount of time due to the uniqueness of this new vehicle. The first months of production were dedicated to constantly tweaking the battery to prevent overheating and breakdowns caused by extreme hot and cold weather, as well as modifying the size of the battery itself so that it did not affect the necessary carriage space of the vehicle.
Toyota was under a significant time crunch to fix these issues in order to keep from compromising the fledgling reputation of the Prius.
In addition to motor and battery issues, critics complained of the lack of power and noted the vast difference in speed tests compared with its own Toyota family members: The Prius could hit 60mph in 13 seconds while its sister car, the Corolla, only needed 10. If Toyota wanted to be competitive against even its own bestsellers, they knew they needed to up their game.
Throughout the years, the Prius has not only modified and improved its motor and battery power, but the engineers have also worked hard to upgrade its sleek design to keep the body and interior up to date with drivers' needs and desires. Aesthetics is an essential factor in motivating engineers to continue to enhance the look of this eco-friendly vehicle, especially when considering who is driving this magical invention.
One of the largest geographic groupings of Prius buyers lies in Southern California, a region which is infamous for its long commutes and gridlocked highways. Hollywood stars were the first to give the Prius the "real market" seal of approval necessary to earn its cult status.
Although Toyota was thrilled to have such an important clientele, it did raise the bar for designers to keep up with the times and create a car that drivers could both look good in and feel good driving.
Effect on the industry
Integration of this new species created a whirlwind of jealously and competition among carmakers worldwide. Once large automobile manufacturers saw the success Toyota enjoyed by introducing a hybrid into the market, it was not long until others began to follow suit. Companies such as Ford, Honda and Lexus immediately started building their own hybrid models of new and existing cars within their lines.
None have achieved the success that Toyota has, but the options of hybrid vehicles currently on the market is certainly impressive. That selection is due to the remarkable vision of Toyota and the staying power of its prodigy, the Prius.
The Prius was such an innovative idea that its creation produced what is now called "The Prius Effect" – a phenomenon which provided real time feedback on gasoline consumption, proving that drivers behaved in a way that significantly reduced fuel use. One could argue that this triumph was what the carmakers ultimately intended to achieve from the time of conception, but others believe it was an unforeseeable badge of honor that Toyota can boast.
Due to the competitive market it has created, Toyota must continue to work hard to maintain its position as the leader of hybrid manufacturers. The Prius family continues to grow, as does the number of options that come with a new Prius. In addition to choosing energy consumption versus highway miles, a buyer can also ask for add-ons like a touchscreen navigation system, remote keyless ignition and Bluetooth options.
The current Prius is a far cry from the one released at the Tokyo Motor show in 1995. From the motor to the interior, today's buyers certainly have more bells and whistles to choose from than they did 20 years ago. However, the idea of building a better, greener, more efficient way "to go" remains the same.