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.
All of which reminds us that the hybrid is no more than a partial answer to the CO2 issue, working best in the stop-start conditions that enable it to convert kinetic energy into electricity. Cruise steadily at high speed, and you’ll be no greener than the next internal combustion-engined car and probably less so, because you’re needlessly carting around an extra motor, a hefty battery pack and some control systems. Despite this burden, the second-generation Prius generally manages to be a more economical breed of car, occasionally achieving the fuel economy of a good turbodiesel in the country that believes oil-burners should have Peterbilt and Kenworth badges on their prows.
So yes, there has been a lot of lightly misguided hype around the Prius. It was not the first and beyond marvelling at its dependable complexity and the diverting dashboard pictogram that illustrates the prevailing energy flows within it, this is not a terribly engaging car. But as the car industry, and governments. work to make the car less of a greenhouse gasser, many may reckon that the 2004 Prius marked a tipping point on the journey towards a greener kind of car.