Events that rocked the car world: Prius electrifies the automobile, CAR+ October 2015

Published: 12 October 2015

► Toyota brought about the hybrid revolution
► No hybrid means no P1, LaFerrari or 918
► Mind-blowing technology 18 years ago

In 1997, cars had a single propulsion source, a combustion engine which hummed at traffic lights as it sipped fuel. Then came Toyota’s Prius. Between the low-revving, 58bhp 1.5-litre engine and its CVT ‘box, Toyota sandwiched a generator-cum-electric motor, linked to a nickel-hydride battery pack behind the rear seats. The result? A small saloon that could drive on electric power alone up to 6mph, and whose low-stressed engine contributed to 77mpg – at a time when a Corolla mustered 38mpg. 

Silent rolling on electric power still feels novel and intoxicating today; 18 years ago it was mind-blowing. It took nine drivetrain computers to manage the interaction between engine and motor, but the Prius felt seamless straight out of the box, being so simple to operate that your granny could have jumped in and driven away. Never mind that the Prius steered like it was sedated, toppled around corners, and that Toyota was reportedly losing £20,000 per car.

The Prius effect

A small but vociferous tribe bought 123,000 of the first generation, mostly in Japan. Other car makers were spooked: ‘If we don’t make a hybrid, people will think we can’t shoot straight,’ muttered GM product chief Bob Lutz. Then the second-generation came, saw and conquered, with 1.2 million sales.

The Prius’s influence has been profound: stop/start engines are now mandatory, the Mk2’s aerodynamic cigar-shape became de rigeur, and its zero emissions electric range is one answer to legislators’ local air quality concerns. This year the Prius will smash through the 3.5 million sales barrier. 

But the most exciting endorsement? The hybrid is now a means to unlock extreme performance, with hybrid systems propelling hypercar performance to unprecedented levels in the Porsche 918, LaFerrari and McLaren P1. And to think it all started with a funny little Toyota saloon… 

Prius Mk1: ’twas a gamechanger

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine

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