February 21, 2024

Wade Through Films

The Ultimate Driving Machines

Toyota Prius hybrid history lesson falls on deaf ears

Toyota Prius hybrid history lesson falls on deaf ears

My daughter frowned when she saw me pull up at the high school parking lot. 

“Ugh, Dad, what is this?” She barely reached for the door. There was a nose wrinkle and eye judgment one step away from the classic American teen eye roll. 

The subject of her disdain was a supersonic red 2022 Toyota Prius XLE with all-wheel drive that would be the sled for our 300-mile road trip. As a 15-year-old with a driver’s permit, and an informed if not spoiled perspective on new test cars, she thought she knew something if not everything. 

“It’s so…ugh. Will it even fit my hockey gear?”

I honked. A nearby flock of teens raised their beaks from their devices. She jumped in.

“It’s so ugly,” she muttered.

“This car is legend,” I started, adopting her vernacular with all the cringe I could muster. “The Prius made efficiency cool and influenced what’s in this parking lot more than any other car in your lifetime.”

2001 Toyota Prius

2001 Toyota Prius

First generation (2001-2003)

The world’s first mass produced hybrid car launched in 1997 and was imported to the U.S. in 2000 for the 2001 model year, “just in time for the 21st century,” according to the marketing taglines, kinda like you, I told her. 

Even though the Prius followed the Honda Insight into the American market, it outlasted and endured, like VHS over Beta that made no sense to my Gen Z daughter. This reference made no sense to her. Unlike the two-door Insight, Toyota designed the Prius to be more than an urban commuter. With four doors and a hatch, it could handle family suburban detail, and at 41 mpg combined, it more than doubled the average passenger vehicle fuel economy at the time. 

“So? Don’t the plug-in ones not even need gas?”

That’s the point, I said. So much has changed in 20 years, and the Prius proved there was a way forward in meeting fuel economy standards. 

With that, I earned the full eye roll and we were off.  

Even without a power tailgate, she fit the hockey goalie bag in the wide opening of the hatch, without the kind of grunting complaints she’s made in sedans. Two roller bags also fit in the 27.4 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up. There was no pass-through in the 60/40-split rear so we folded down the smaller portion for her stick, a cooler, snack bag, and backpack full of homework that would remain ignored. We could have fit a teammate and her hockey bag, if we needed to. In the rearview mirror, the bag blocked the annoying split-glass hatch, but there was still plenty of outward vision. 

The interior space surprised me again, as it does every time I get in a Prius, and the broad and tall windows justified its oddball mouse-controller exterior shape. The expansive interior allowed for plenty of rear legroom and headroom, and my passenger contented herself by reclining the front seat, ear-plugging in, and dad-dropping out of her history lesson. 

It was loud on the highway, but not rough, and not as unrefined as its predecessors. She took for granted Bluetooth connectivity, and couldn’t have realized it was special when Toyota launched the second-generation Prius. 

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

Second-generation Prius (2004-2009)

Sensing a hit, Toyota leaned into the futuristic elements with cutting-edge features such as push-button start, an interactive infotainment screen, a new design, and an evolution of its hybrid system that boosted EPA fuel economy to 46 mpg combined. It helped that gas prices peaked at $4.06 in the middle of 2008, when you were just learning how to scoot along down the hallways on a trike, I told her. We passed highway signs for gas that cost the same now, and I commented on it being cheap, but adjusting for inflation was a conversation for another road trip. 

2009 Toyota Prius

2009 Toyota Prius

The quirky design of the second-gen Prius aided efficiency as well, with a windshield that appeared to slope right up from the front bumper, forming a triangular high point above the driver’s head like a sail, except smoothed out to appear like the mouse controller on wheels that cemented it in that popular imagination. It didn’t hurt that young Hollywood stars ranging from Miley Cyrus to Gwenyth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio made star-studded appearances in their Priuses to raise eco-awareness. 

“You know Leo?”

She glanced over her shoulder at me with mild irritation, her whole body contorted into an “as if, duh” retort. 

The 2010 Toyota Prius

The 2010 Toyota Prius

Third-generation Prius (2010-2015)

The Prius matured for its third act, getting longer, roomier, more family friendly, and slightly more powerful with a 1.8-liter inline-4 that paired with the motor to make 134 hp. It also overachieved at 50 mpg combined. Toyota began rolling out other models, including the larger Prius V, the smaller, eco-optimized Prius C, and the launch of a plug-in hybrid version in 2012 that would become the Prime. After a decade of dominance, Toyota sensed the hybrid times were changing. 

The popularity of the Prius peaked in 2012 and 2013, when the economy began to recover and gas and oil became relatively cheap. Being the leader meant fending off the competition, especially with more hybrids coming to market and a nascent electric vehicle market getting a charge late in 2010 with the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. The Prius went from being Mr. Popular to being the guy who graduated high school years earlier but still showed up to high school parties. Stay away from the Prius at the party. But you’re not going to parties as a freshman, right? I asked.

Her cold shoulder remained.  

2020 Toyota Prius

2020 Toyota Prius

Fourth generation (2016-2022)

Toyota tried injecting some youthful spunk into its aging star, but all the sharp angles and Botoxed bumpers couldn’t overcome that more hybrids were being packaged in more popular compact crossovers, such as the Toyota RAV4. Then there was Toyota’s one-time partner, Tesla, disrupting the automotive landscape on a much larger scale than the Prius ever did. With all the efficient hybrid crossovers, as well as dozens of plug-in hybrid options, the Toyota Prius felt old.

Kind of amazing how market acceptance of a hybrid, and how eco-conscious transportation was made cool on the humped back of the Prius? It paved the way for electric cars. 

No response. 

I persisted. Still, there wasn’t a more affordable and more efficient car on the market without a plug. By 2018, the V was gone, and by 2019 Toyota tried to forestall the shift to hybrid crossovers with an all-wheel-drive version that we drive right now. There’s no car or crossover without a plug that can come near the EPA rated 51 mpg city, 47 highway, 49 combined. Look, 49.8 mpg at 75 mph over 200 miles! With a 10.6-gallon tank, and a range of 519 miles, that means we don’t have to stop unless you make me!

She shifted in her seat or shrugged, the latter being so hard to tell from so many similar dismissive teen body motions. 

“What do you make of all that?” I said, my direct coffee injection running on all four cylinders. 

“What?” she said finally, sitting up groggy or bored or teen. She pulled her hair back and popped out an ear bud. “Did you say something?”

She had buds in, Dad out the whole time. 

I said nothing. She’ll be in the market soon enough, and I wonder if she’ll recognize the new wedgy 2023 Toyota Prius, if she’ll appreciate how far the fifth generation has come from all those Priuses that preceded it. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius


2022 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

Base price: $30,600 including $1,025 destination

Price as tested: $32,084

Drivetrain: 1.8-liter inline-4 with two motors and all-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 51/47/49 mpg 

The hits: Efficiency, versatility, big space in small footprint

The misses: Aged looks, dated tech, invisible to a new generation