The pioneering Prius turns 20

Probably nobody who didn’t work at Toyota City in Japan realized just how prescient this new, diminutive sedan was when it first appeared in late 2000. Until Toyota introduced the Prius as a 2001 model, most mortals likely viewed electrically powered automobiles either as some kind of fantasy from the pages of Popular Science and such, or else as a smudged reference from some long-ago tome on the auto industry’s early history. Without a lot of hype – because nobody really knew whether buyers would embrace a tiny sedan whose practically invisible gasoline engine was augmented by rechargeable batteries – the Prius entered the North American market almost without a ripple, after having been sold in Japan since 1997. In the ensuing years, Toyota’s gamble has clearly paid off. The auto giant has since sold more than 6 million copies of the Prius worldwide, with some 1.9 million of them finding buyers in the United States. More importantly, the Prius was the launching point for Toyota’s expanded electrification of its U.S. lineup, which has since accounted for 3.6 million overall sales, including EVs bearing the Lexus nameplate. The Prius made electric cars both feasible and acceptable in this hydrocarbon-addicted country.

Of course, this milestone mandates a celebration. Toyota has rolled out the Prius 2020 Edition in a limited edition of 2,020 units, available in either Supersonic Red or Wind Chill Pearl with black accents, with a rear spoiler and XLE trim accoutrements. It’s still a Prius, its 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle engine (meaning its four piston strokes take place within a single crankshaft revolution) and two electric traction motors assisted by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. This is a legitimate 50 MPG vehicle, and for all its diminutive size, it’s amazingly roomy, with more than 50 cubic feet of available interior space. Prius sedans are extensively used as taxis in Paris; I rode in one piloted by a memorably engaging driver from Cameroon. Among other advances, the fourth-generation Prius now offers all-wheel drive.

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