Curbside Classic: 2002 Toyota Prius – Toyota’s Big Hybrid Gamble Pays Off

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(first posted 8/19/2013. Update 6/18/2022: this same Prius is still there at this address) 

A happy marriage isn’t exactly the easiest thing to engineer. And gasoline and electricity are about as compatible as Donald Trump and Mother Theresa. I know, Ferdinand Porsche built a “hybrid” in 1899, and there have been others since. But it’s time to bust the very myth I’ve been guilty of perpetuating myself: Porsche’s “Mixte” wasn’t a real hybrid. Like the Chevrolet Volt, it was an EV with a gas generator to extend its range when the battery gave out. That’s like calling a single guy with a maid and a hooker “married”.  But the Toyota engineers pulled it off, teaching the two oldest propulsion systems how to dance, simultaneously–and by doing so, the Prius became the most revolutionary car since the Model T. Update: The Tesla Model S might now well be seen as that.

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Electric cars date back to about 1839, when Robert Anderson, of Aberdeen, Scotland, built the first. The first practical one, pictured above, was built by Thomas Parker in 1884. smooth and quiet city cars. As smooth and quiet city cars, battery-electrics would go on to enjoy a substantial market share during the first few decades of the 20th century.


Huge, heavy and expensive lead-acid batteries were their limiting factor.  Porsche’s Lohner Mixte (above) and his later gas-electric vehicles, including the incredible “land trains”, were less about practical efficiency than bypassing the problems of the crude clutches and transmissions of the day.

In so called “serial hybrids”, which are not very complicated in concept, the internal combustion (IC) engine merely drives the generator. But losses by the generator and electric motor exceed those of an IC directly driving the wheels through an efficient transmission. A Volt/Mixte-style range extender works best backing up a large battery which is, of course, heavy and expensive.

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Parallel hybrid drive–in which electric and gasoline propulsion are used interchangeably and jointly in order to maximize each system’s relative advantages–is not exactly newer than the serial hybrid, but it’s a lot harder to pull off, at least commercially. In 1899, a Belgian carmaker, Pieper, introduced a small car in which the gasoline engine was mated to an electric motor under the seat. During “cruising,” the electric motor was in effect a generator, recharging the batteries. But when the car was climbing a grade, the electric motor, mounted coaxially with the gas engine, gave it a boost.

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Pieper’s patents were used by the Belgium firm Auto-Mixte to build commercial vehicles from 1906 to 1912 (1906 Auto-Mixte shown).


There were others, too, but once self-starters and better clutches and transmissions came along, interest in hybrids of both kinds pretty much died out. The resurgence came in the late Sixties, especially when the government began to regulate emissions. But the key engineering from which the Prius would borrow heavily was undertaken in 1968-1971, by three scientists at TRW, a major auto supplier. They created a practical parallel hybrid system, designated as an electromechanical transmission (EMT) (above), and patented it. It provided a level of brisk vehicle performance with a smaller engine comparable to that from a larger, conventional internal combustion engine.

There were two catalysts responsible for the birth of the Prius: In 1992, Toyota announced its Earth Charter, a document that outlined goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest emissions possible; and, in 1993, President Clinton created the PNGV (Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles), a billion-dollar program designed to result in commercially produced family-sized cars– capable of 80 mpg–by 2003 (only U.S. companies need apply).

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Feeling left out, but not wanting to be left behind, Toyota embarked on its own project, “G21”, to create a Corolla-size car that would improve its fuel efficiency by 50% (a target later raised to 100%, or 60 mpg on the optimistic Japanese fuel-economy cycle). The whole story of the Prius’ very ambitious development is a little beyond our scope, but here is an excellent article on it. And contrary to common myth, the first Prius was not based on the smaller Echo, despite some familial design similarities.

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As is all too common with government handouts, the PNGV vehicles amounted to very little beyond the usual Detroit Autorama-style dog and pony show (the GM Precept is shown above). All used diesel engines in their hybrid architecture, despite the known fact that contemporary diesel technology would not be EPA compliant by the time the cars (theoretically) arrived in 2003. Never mind asking what they would have cost to produce.

Anyway, the Big Three were too busy minting serious coin from their big SUVs to be seriously distracted by such nonsense during a time of record low oil prices. Toyota’s biggest technical hurdle by far was managing thermal issues with the Prius’ battery pack. The rest was not really that difficult, thanks to the prior work done in the field (which eventually resulted in patent litigation). Toyota claims it spent the equivalent of about one billion U.S. dollars on development, roughly the same amount it takes to develop a typical new car. There is no evidence that the Japanese Government provided financial assistance; Toyota has denied it, and it just wasn’t that big an undertaking (Ford developed its very similar hybrid system without government support). There’s no doubt that Toyota absorbed losses on its production during its first few years.

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The Prius concept was shown in 1995, and the first Japanese-market version went on sale in 1997. A somewhat revised but almost identical-looking Prius went on sale in the U.S. as a 2001 model. I remember buying gas for 98 cents that year.

My first ride in a Prius was in a gen-one version like this one, driven by my father in-law. We drove down from the hills of Salt Lake City into downtown, and all the way he kept the gas engine from engaging. The downhill segments kept the battery charged for accelerating from lights and on short flat sections. It was a revelation. I knew then that a new era was dawning, and that Detroit, Washington, and the PNGV had blown it. Here was a practical and reasonably roomy car that cost $19,995 and could get 50 mpg.

Improving fuel economy from 25 to 50 mpg results in a savings of 280 gallons per year, at 14K miles/year. And the additional improvement to the lofty PNGV goal of 80 mpg? 100 more gallons saved per year. The law of diminishing returns was never better explained than by that billion-dollar boondoggle. In theory, that is.

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The rest of the Prius story is well known. From 15K units sold in 2001, it has gone on to become one of today’s Top Ten best-sellers. Not surprisingly, Eugene was an early adopter. There are about four or five of these first-gen models within a couple of blocks of my house. I couldn’t resist shooting this one, because of all of its stereotypical bumper stickers and its being parked in front of that fluttering rainbow PEACE flag. How perfect and lucky was that? And the stereotypical female owner is…a massage therapist. But the military Jeep and its crusty vet owner live just down the street from her. To live successfully in Eugene one learns to embrace diversity, even if it’s mostly white. And to visualize whirled peas.

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It took a while for the rest of the industry to get what this massage therapist did ten years ago. In 2004, GM’s Bob Lutz dismissed the Prius as “an interesting oddity”. Two years later, he announced the Prius-killer Volt with these words: “The electrification of the automobile is inevitable”. And now? Well, the market for hybrids continues to expand, but perhaps not as quickly as was initially predicted. Conventional cars keep getting more efficient, and the early adopters have moved on to Teslas and Leafs.

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The oddest thing about the Prius is all the hate it has provoked. Maybe it’s the stereotypes of Prius owners, and yes, this one fits to a tee (which is why I shot it). I always assumed auto enthusiasts got excited about new technologies (by which I mean excited in the usual sense). Perhaps the Prius’ marketing contributed to it (here’s a very early ad). Prius polarization is just another reflection of the times we live in. If GM had come out with a Prius in 1974, based on their ’60s hybrid research, it would have been universally acclaimed (until it likely started falling apart, that is). But that was then; now, we demonize that which we neither understand nor take the time and effort to understand. As we say in Eugene: “It’s all good, man”.

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