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In praise of the mighty Prius

The news about Toyota has been so bad recently that many may have forgotten it was just 10 years ago the company brought us the Prius, perhaps the most important car of all time.
Toyota debuts the Toyota Prius at the North Americ
The Toyota Prius, the world's top-selling hybrid, debuted in the United States at the Detroit auto show in 2000.Daniel Lippitt / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: The Big Money

Toyota has been thoroughly knocked around over the past few months, with an epic PR crisis brought on by recalls for myriad problems in its cars and trucks. The news has been so bad about a company once seen as almost invincible that many may have forgotten how Toyota gained its enviable reputation.

But on April 22—Earth Day 2010—the true Toyota faithful celebrated one of the events that enabled the company to command a cult-like devotion to its vehicles. It was on Earth Day in 2000 that Toyota announced the Prius would be coming to America.

No one really grasped the implications back then. The Prius was a new kind of car, motivated by a new kind of propulsion system: a gas-electric “hybrid synergy drive.” It ran on a combination of internal-combustion and electric power. The mileage was phenomenal; in an era of 14-mpg SUVs, the Prius routinely averaged 40 mpg. It also emitted far less pollution than anything else on the road—with the possible exception of the much less versatile Honda Insight, which had arrived in the United States a year earlier.

The first U.S. Prius owners were an early-adopting few, numbering only about 6,000. And the vehicle itself was something of an anomaly, in no way resembling the vaunted car of the future. But over the next decade, it would change everything. And in the process, become the most important car ever created.

The automobile has been with us for more than a century now, but its development has traced two distinct trajectories: There are cars that improve the conversation, and cars that change it.

A good example of the former was the Miata, which hit the streets in 1989. There was nothing disruptively innovative about the model, but it advanced on its antecedent, the simple, sporty British roadster.

But the Prius is a different story. The Miata was easily recognized for what it was by auto-enthusiasts—it made the heart beat faster. The Prius, on the other hand, arrived in stealth mode. It looked like a very boring little sedan. But once it did what the Miata and countless other tweaks on the car couldn’t—engage the mind—the Prius showed it was a game-changer.

In a manner of speaking, it was the iPad of its day. In much the same way that the iPad will redefine the way we read books, newspapers, magazines, and their 21st century successors—not to mention the way we surf the Web, watch movies and TV, and play games—the Prius reshaped what we expect from a car.

This matters far more than pure sales figures. The Prius has sold relatively well, but it hasn’t displaced larger sedans in the Toyota lineup, like the Camry. The current market-share for all hybrids, a decade after the Prius’ introduction, remains in the low single digits.

But so what? The important thing isn’t that the Prius became a runaway success as a car. No, its ultimate victory is that it created a new category of vehicle. The problem with “advanced mobility”—the term that futurists apply to products that break with the past—is that in the 1990s there was no easy way to get from evolutions of gas-powered cars to the electric and alternative-fuel vehicles that many observers insisted we needed to move toward.

In the 1990s, battery technology wasn’t good enough to deliver serious mileage. Gas was also cheap, with no end to the cheapness in sight. The gas crisis of the 1970s was a distant memory. There was no compelling reason, at the time, to consider a major shift away from vehicles that were powered by old-school internal combustion engines.

Into this environment, the Prius arrived like an emissary from the future. But unlike the infamous EV1, the all-electric car that General Motors developed and then killed, the Prius required no new infrastructure for charging. Owners didn’t have to invent a home-charging station. All they had to do was buy the car and fuel it through the existing network of gas stations. The electric part took care of itself, because the Prius' battery-powered aspects were integrated with the internal-combustion parts.

But it got people thinking. If, at low speeds, my Prius is running entirely on electricity, emitting nothing, and costing me nothing in gas, then why can’t we simply ramp-up from this starting point and build cars with bigger batteries and more powerful electric motors that can travel farther between charges? Electric cars have been around at the beginning of the automotive age, but were swept aside by the greater efficiency and convenience of the internal-combustion engine. A century later, were they at last ready for a second act?

Prius owners thought so, and they created a sensation in mindshare. By the time the second-generation Prius appeared for the 2004 model, updating the pokey first-gen car with its wedge-like hatchback styling that would come to define to hybrid design, hybrid was synonymous with Prius. Green was good in the waning days of the Clinton presidency, and the easiest way to prove that you walked the walk with the new environmental movement was to pilot a Prius. Hollywood greens traded exotic European high-performance cars costing hundreds of thousands for a dour Toyota that went for less than the catering bill for a typical studio movie.

You couldn’t buy the kind of advertising that equated with Leonardo DiCaprio gassing up his Prius in Los Angeles. Other automakers followed Toyota into the hybrid game, but it was too late. The Japanese juggernaut had already captured the most influential hearts and minds. By the time GM and Ford  convinced customers to buy their first hybrids, Toyota loyalists were already shopping for their third Prius. It wasn’t unusual, in some coastal enclaves, to find multiple-Prius families.

So when Toyota’s recall problems this year spread from its bread-and-butter sedans to the Prius, the company was understandably petrified. The world’s No. 1 automaker sold millions of different cars and trucks—but with the Prius, it had captured lightning in a bottle. This almost never happens in the car business. In fact, the only predecessor to the Prius that could be considered even remotely in the same league is the Ford Model T.

The Tin Lizzie made cars something for everyone, not just a wealthy elite. The Prius made cars that could do something to save the planet. When the Model T was first rolled out, a century of automobiles was unimaginable. But once the Model T had become commonplace, everyone knew where cars were headed. The future was also far less clear 10 years ago, when the first Priuses took to America’s highways. But now, the path is obvious. Someday we will live in a world of electric cars. And we’ll live in that world because Toyota pulled the future forward, on four wheels.