When hybrids are mentioned, the Toyota Prius is usually the first name that comes to mind. Even though the Prius was the second hybrid vehicle introduced in the United States, coming seven months after the Honda Insight, it’s become the far more recognizable name because of its combination of affordability, reliability and being in the right place at the right time.
The right time proved to be the mid-2000s, when the energy crisis reached a peak and oil prices spiked sending gasoline over the $3 per gallon mark across most of the country — a huge adjustment from the low prices of the late 1990s.
As Americans adjusted to the sticker shock and gasoline became a precious commodity, the Prius became the biggest beneficiary because of its fuel economy of over 40 miles per gallon. After selling a total of 64 million cars in its first four years on the U.S. market, the hybrid exploded in 2005, selling 107 million units that year alone.
The rest is history, as the Prius quickly built a loyal fan base that’s kept it among the top cars in the world to this day. At the same time, it earned disdain among a segment of car enthusiasts who weren’t fans of the look of environmentally conscious vehicles. But love it or hate it, the Prius is unquestionably one of the most important vehicles in history and an integral part of the auto industry. Although it started in obscurity in 1997, it’s now hard to imagine a world without hybrid vehicles on the road — and the Prius is largely the reason why.
A Car for The Crisis
Being in the right place at the right time meant the Prius had the chance to earn its way into customers’ hearts, and a lack of true competitors helped it corner the market with those who cared most about fuel efficiency. Two years following the first spike in 2005, demand spiked again as gas prices continued to skyrocket. With gas pushing $4 per gallon and no end in sight, more Americans than ever decided the Prius was the wave of the future — 181 million purchased one that year. Demand then cooled slightly in the U.S. as the Great Recession set in and gas prices began to tumble, but worldwide demand was only getting started.
In Japan, which had just emerged from its own lost decade, demand for a more fuel-efficient vehicle increased as it became clear that China’s thirst for oil wasn’t lessening any time soon. The U.S might have pulled back slightly from its craving for a fuel-efficient vehicle, but Japan more than made up the difference as sales of the Prius nearly tripled from 73 million in 2008 to 208 million in 2009. A year later, it hit half a billion in annual sales for the first time, with Japan alone accounting for over 300 million. Clearly, the Prius had lived up to the meaning of the name Toyota tagged it with in 1997: ahead of its time.
Moving Past the Recession
Once the recession was in the past, demand for the Prius didn’t decline. Worldwide sales cooled somewhat as gas prices returned to normal, but the Prius remained popular with at least 200 million units sold worldwide every year between 2006 and 2016.
What’s helped the hybrid remain popular is Toyota’s refusal to sit on its laurels and allow the Prius to stagnate. Instead, the Japanese auto giant has continued to push forward with new technology to help owners reduce their carbon footprint and drive a cleaner vehicle. As fuel economy became less important, Toyota picked up on drivers’ desire to minimize their impact on the environment and adjusted accordingly. Technological advances have allowed the Prius to stash a smaller and more efficient nickel battery and dedicate more space to performance.
A great example is the Prius Prime, which is as good as it gets in the world of low carbon footprints because of its ability to go 25 miles on electricity alone. Even the standard Prius is a better option than all-electric vehicles, and it’s more affordable, keeping it popular among those who want to protect the environment.
Economical Can Be Fun
The fourth-generation Prius has done what earlier generations could not: strike a balance between great gas mileage and enjoyment. The Prius will never be confused with a Mustang, but it’s become an enjoyable, mainstream vehicle.
Not only have the latest versions of the Prius added features that drivers prize, such as LED lighting and functionality with common smart phone applications, but it’s become safer in the process. Its most recent technological upgrades include the ability to self-park and signal to pedestrians that the vehicle is approaching, minimizing the risk of accidents.
The defining feature of the Prius hasn’t changed since day one. With an efficiency of 52 miles per gallon without being plugged in, the Prius is matched only by Hyundai’s Ioniq, making it one of the most affordable cars to operate over the long-term. As long as this remains true, the Prius is likely to hold its place as a favorite car for those who value efficiency, green living and affordability above all other features.