Road test: 1997 Toyota Prius

That original Prius brought hybrid motoring and the Japanese company’s ‘Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive’ to the masses, and has gone on to spawn three subsequent generations. We took a spin in one of the early UK cars.

On 27 October 1995 at the 31st Tokyo motor show, Toyota unveiled a concept car which would set the template for hybrid vehicles for the decade which followed. That concept car was the Prius, and in the intervening 22 years the famous nameplate has become one of the Japanese carmaker’s most easily recognised.

While the production version of the Prius took another two years to emerge, the ‘Toyota Hybrid System’ (THS) technology which underpinned the concept car was developed to create a model which has since become a by-word for hybrid vehicles. 

What was it?

The Toyota Prius first arrived in the UK in autumn 2000. Powered by either a 70bhp 1.5‑litre VVT-i petrol engine, a 30kW (40bhp) electric motor or a combination of both, a generator and 40-module 6.5Ah nickel‑metal hydride (Ni‑MH) battery bank sit behind the rear seats.

Designed in California, the first‑generation Prius boasted a drag co-efficient of Cd 0.29, not too far off the current model’s 0.24. 

Styled to look like a small saloon car, the early Prius featured a technogically‑advanced interior, which borrowed elements from more conventional Toyotas like the Yaris supermini.

Swoopy surfaces and a centrally‑mounted instrument binnacle were radical back at the turn of the millennium, and the column-mounted gear change was both a nod to its US roots, and a space-saving innovation. 

How did it drive?

Where the older Prius feels dated is in its material execution: the plastics have a harder‑grained feel than those of today, and the touchscreen display is made from liquid crystal rather than the thin‑film transistor (TFT) units of 2017.

While there is very much a definite technological gap between the first-generation and fourth-generation Prius models, it perhaps doesn’t feel like it’s that of two decades. 

Another of the things that strikes you about the Prius of 2001 and the Prius of 2017 is that there’s a definite shared family ‘feel’. Both cars feel very similar in terms of technology, although of course, that’s all relative, as technology of 17 years ago is nowhere near as advanced as that of now.

Look past the riot of velour and beige inside the cabin, and the 5.8-inch central touchscreen displays energy usage and recovery information as well as fuel economy values from the hybrid powertrain, so immediately there’s familiarity with the current car. 

The 1,496cc petrol engine of the original Prius runs a simulated Atkinson combustion cycle for ultimate fuel efficiency and both it and the electric motor are connected by an epicyclic ‘gear train’ to the front wheels.

A control system monitors the ratio of power from each source – depending on speed and load – to ensure that the car is running in its most efficient state. The engine output can be divided between the driving wheels and the on‑board generator.

Although the petrol engine’s main job is to drive the wheels, any surplus output is used to recharge the Ni-MH battery pack. One clever innovation the Prius pioneered was a regenerative braking system which captures wasted kinetic energy to recharge the batteries, which then provide extra power through the drive motor when over taking or driving up a hill. 

Under low‑speed, standstill or downhill conditions, the petrol engine shuts down completely and the car runs on electric power alone, something very novel 17 years ago. When both the petrol engine and the electric motor are in use together, electricity is again generated to top up the electric system battery as the car is driven. 

Just as with the 2017 model (GreenFleet 93), the original Prius starts off in purely electric mode, moving just a short distance before the petrol engine kicks in. Once on the move, the car sounds quite thrashy, but Toyota engineered engine revs to never exceed 4,500rpm. 

The column gear selector wand is interesting to use if you’re not used to older cars of a more classic nature, and can be slotted into ‘B’ mode to recapture more energy.
Toyota GB’s heritage Prius had driven a mere 77,000 miles, and so still felt quite tight.

For an economy car, this particular first-generation Prius felt fun and enjoyable to drive, with keen turn-in from economy‑minded low-rolling resistance tyres and light steering.

How economical was it?

When it was new, Toyota claimed that the first‑generation Prius would return 57.6mpg, and with CO2 emissions of 114g/km, it was cleaner and more efficient than small petrol hatchbacks such as the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf as well as larger diesel saloons like the Peugeot 406 HDi and the Volkswagen Bora TDI.

The only comparable hybrid on the market was the more radically‑designed 64mpg Honda Insight, which, on paper, bettered the Prius in economy.

The Toyota Hybrid System allowed a theoretical driving range of 560 miles and enabled the Prius to accelerate from 0 to 62mph in 13.4 seconds and onto a maximum speed of 99mph.

What did it cost?

Hybrid technology was new at the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s, and the first-generation Prius’ price reflected this, with Toyota rumoured to make a loss on every one in order to trailblaze hybrid technology.

With a list price of £16,495, it was around £5,000 more expensive than mainstream rivals such as the Honda Civic, which did without the complexity of the Toyota’s hybrid powertrain.

Equipment was high to make up for the Prius’ tall forecourt cost. Standard kit included ABS, alloy wheels, air-conditioning, a CD/radio/cassette system, electric windows, metallic paint, and twin airbags. 

In 2017, cars can be picked up from £600 to £1,500, but price isn’t the issue – finding a decent car is.

Only around 1,200 of Toyota’s debut hybrid were imported from 2000-2004, and with battery life at the time expected to be around 10 years or 100,000 miles, all of those would have reached at least one of those milestones over a decade later.

Why did my fleet need one?

At the time of the original Prius’ launch, the UK government offered fleets subsidies of £1,000 to use and aid the introduction of Toyota’s pioneering new eco model as part of the Powershift initiative which aimed to kick-start the market for clean fuel vehicles.

Available for the first 200 cars, the grant was administered by Toyota GB and funded under Powershift’s “demonstration project” scheme for 2000/2001.

The first-generation Prius was also the first Toyota to be offered with a five-year mechanical warranty. A leasing scheme called Prius One was also introduced to protect private buyers from residual value risk, while Toyota handled the recycling of the car at the end of its life.

Another bonus was that Prius drivers were exempt from the daily £5 London Congestion Charge which was introduced by London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2002.


The first-generation Prius was launched in December 1997, and arrived in the Hampshire Constabulary was one of the first fleets to try the car UK in autumn 2000. Here are some highlights from the life of the Toyota’s most notable hybrid.

1997: First-generation Prius launched in Japan. 2000 First-generation Prius launched in the UK.

2002: Prius becomes the first hybrid car to complete an FIA-sanctioned event, the Midnight Sun to Red Sea Rally. Worldwide sales pass 100,000.

2004: Second-generation Prius launched in the UK: 1.5-litre, 76bhp petrol engine; 67bhp electric motor; 104g/km. Worldwide sales pass 250,000.

2005: Prius sets new world land speed record for a hybrid vehicle, achieving 130.794mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Range revised.

2006: Worldwide Prius sales pass 500,000.

2009: Third-generation Prius debuts at the Detroit motor show: 1.8-litre, 98bhp petrol engine; 80bhp electric motor; 89-92g/km.

2011: First-generation Prius Plug-in launched: 15.5-mile range, 134.5mpg, 49g/km.

2012: Seven-seat Prius+ MPV debuts – world’s first seven-seat full hybrid vehicle: 1.8-litre, 98bhp petrol engine; 80bhp electric motor; 68.9mpg, 96g/km.

2014: Tuned Prius TRD sets Nurburgring fuel economy record: 698mpg, lap time of 20 minutes and 59 seconds.

2015: Fourth-generation Prius unveiled at Tokyo Motor Show: 1.8-litre, 97bhp petrol engine; 71bhp electric motor; 70-76g/km.

2016: Second-generation Prius plug-in unveiled at New York International Auto Show: 31 miles of range, 202mpg, 32g/km.

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