The first hybrid to hit North America was the Honda Insight, a cute, sleek little two-seater that beat the Toyota Prius to market within seven months. It had a manual transmission, was a pleasure to drive in typical Honda fashion, and was rated at 61 mpg, holding the title of North America’s most efficient production gasoline-powered vehicle for a decade and a half. No problem: sales-wise, the Prius completely blows it away.
Toyota hybrids are not a unique science project; it was a Herculean effort that laid the foundation for a new kind of powertrain. The oddball Insight is a narrow application kitchen tool that you use twice a year; The Prius may have all the personality of a coffee maker, but it makes its coffee right, every morning.
How the Hybrid Synergy Drive Works
The core of the similarities is the way Toyota’s hybrid system differs from Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist. The latter featured an auxiliary electric motor that occasionally kicks in with added torque for the efficient four-cylinder small displacement. The Toyota setup is a parallel hybrid, two complete drivetrains mixed into one, and incorporates elements from sources as diverse as the Ford Model T and Japan. Shinkansen bullet train.
For the petrol engine, the first generation Prius used a 1.5-liter inline-four running the Atkinson cycle which prioritizes efficiency. This keeps the intake valve open slightly longer on the compression stroke, which reduces pressure in the cylinder, sacrificing power for efficiency. This engine produces 70 hp and 82 pound-feet of torque.
Making up for this power deficit is an electric motor. Paired with a 1.78 kWh nickel-metal hydride battery, the AC motor produces just 44 hp, but 258 pound-feet of torque. Here, Toyota studied bullet train semiconductors to help regulate the flow of energy between batteries and electric motors. That car really wasn’t fast—Car and Driver tested the 2001 model and clocked a glacial 13.0 seconds to 60 mph—but the electric motor provides useful throttle response in stop-and-go traffic.
The connection between the Model T and Prius is found in the transmission. Like the mass-market success of Henry Ford, Toyota also has a planetary gearbox, which allows input from the petrol engine, electric motor, or both, as needed. This also allows the electric motor to provide regenerative braking, converting the Prius’s moving potential energy back into electricity to be stored in the battery. Early testers expressed amazement at the way the Prius alternately spun or stayed still as it rolled down the road. But it works. The original 52-mpg EPA city rating speaks for itself (that figure has since been revised to 42 mpg based on updated procedures).
Where Do Prius Come From
The first Prius concept was shown at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. Its name comes from the Latin word for “before”, with the same root as “before”. Toyota—correctly—predicted that the Prius would continue to create new types of cars that bridged the gap between gasoline power and electrification.
Development work is very painstaking. Early prototypes had issues with the battery overheating or failing in cold weather. Toyota engineers took a month to make the first prototype really start, and then stalled after 100 yards. For a trip with a Toyota executive, an engineer must sit gun-to-hand with a laptop, watching battery temperatures for runaway thermal events, in the odd mirror from the “Danger to Manifold” scene from Fast and furious.
Toyota’s new president at the time, a fourth-degree black belt in judo, was uncompromising in his vision for the Prius. A working production model will go on sale in two years, whatever the cost. A team of 1000 engineers worked hard on the project. Toyota’s design office in Newport, California, was given just three weeks to sketch the brief. It was a titanic effort, but on December 10, 1997, the first Prius sedan was launched in Japan. Four years later, Toyota deemed the tweaked version suitable for US consumption.
The first Prius taxis started operating in 2001, in Vancouver. Owner-operator Andrew Grant noted huge maintenance savings over the Ford Crown Victoria sedan that was typically used as a taxicab at the time. The Prius not only burns less fuel but is lighter on consumables: the car’s front brake pads last 185,000 miles, and that’s with taxi driver on wheels. Toyota engineers traded the Grant for a brand new 2003 model year so they could disassemble the 2001 while developing the next generation Prius.
This second generation car really took the Prius mainstream. Now a hatchback, and with a better packed battery pack to avoid cutting interior space, the Prius is a better tool than ever. 2004 saw more taxi companies follow Grant’s lead, and the Prius’ popularity exploded. Most likely, the last Uber you took was a Prius.
The Prius is not only a useful solution, it’s also a statement. Excellent fuel consumption goes hand in hand with low emissions, and the little egg-shaped Toyota soon became synonymous with caring for the environment, or at least demonstrating that you did. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio bought the Prius, and a fleet of famous cars were used to drive the Hollywood set to the 2003 Academy Awards. This, of course, elicited the usual reactions on talk radio and the like, and the cocky Prius owner slant on South Park.
In a way, the Prius is typical of Toyota’s flagship product: cheap to own, consistent, and dependable, but not very exciting. If you have one, you don’t have to think about it too much; You just refuel it less often than a normal car and drive it.
On the other hand, the Prius is a car that is important enough to be a part of popular culture. It pleases many and provokes others. Not bad for a coffee maker on wheels. All the Prius has to do is prove that hybrid technology works. And it happened.
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