It’s not beautiful, it’s not that great to drive and the thinking behind it is more than a little flawed, but Toyota’s second attempt at a mass-market hybrid gets my vote as the most significant car of the 21st century’s first decade. The petrol-electric Prius has done more than any other car to wake us up to the need limit the CO2 emissions, besides proving that highly complex technology can be as reliable as sunrise. And it demonstrated that the public, or a useful portion of it, is willing to try something new in the quest to clean up exhausts.
The Prius’s success is partly down to good fortune, the oddball Toyota’s popularity turbocharged by the urge of some Hollywood ‘A’ listers to be seen to be Doing Something about carbon. Even if a few of them also skim the earth’s surface in private jets, they have at least given this green car a desirable profile, pushing the Prius into our consciousness and encouraging other car makers to chase after it. All of which must have been galling for Honda, which was actually first to put a hybrid in showrooms with its two-seat Insight.
So Toyota got a little lucky with its heavily subsidised gamble (the company’s first few hundred thousand hybrids, and possibly more, have not made a profit) and for more reasons than the casual whims of Hollywood, too. That’s because the Prius’s complex hybrid drivetrain was actually developed to tackle the build-up of noxious pollutants in city centres, Toyota and others mainly labouring to eliminate unburnt hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, if only for a volt-propelled mile or two, from car exhausts, rather than carbon dioxide. So when global-warming became an issue, the hybrid’s early experimenters could bend their prototypes to the task.