Toyota Prius 1997 ~ 2013 Motor Trader Car News

7 Апр 2014 | Author: | Комментарии к записи Toyota Prius 1997 ~ 2013 Motor Trader Car News отключены
Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

Toyota Prius: 1997

Posted on June 15, 2013 at 9:14 am

Chips Yap recalls what it was like driving the first Toyota hybrid and the latest generation with plug-in capability 16 years later

To be honest, when I drove a prototype of the first Toyota Prius, I did not really think of it as a significant development. It was certainly an interesting idea to add an electric motor to a conventional internal combustion engine to save fuel and reduce toxic exhaust emissions but during that period (late 1990s), I had also tested other prototypes with alternative powertrains.

Not only Toyota but other companies offered journalists opportunities to experience some of their new technologies but everything was in its infancy. The performance was ‘modest’ and it was often stressed that ‘we are still refining the technology’, so it was hard to see which technology would make it to mass production.

Of course, I knew Toyota was going to launch the Prius but I never imagined that it would create a revolution in the auto industry. I expected it to be something sold on a limited scale, like the first RAV4 EV which was just launched at that time. So I also regret that I never took more pictures back then of the event…

Actually, it was good timing that we were in Japan at that time and that the Toyota PR people finally managed to get the agreement of the Prius RD team to offer test-drives of the prototypes (some using Corona Premio bodies) to the media. A couple of years earlier, the Public Affairs department had tried to organise events to give a preview of the new technology but this activity would interfere with the work of the engineers who were already under a lot of pressure because the launch date had been changed to a year earlier than they had planned. A bold engineer made a complaint internally about the ‘inconsiderate request’ and the public affairs guys backed off.

But by the time of our event, it was nearing the launch (though we had not been told) and media activities were being stepped up as a prelude. The only request made was that we delay publishing our reports for about a month as the Japanese media had not been given the same opportunities yet and Toyota did not want to offend them.

I recall having mixed feelings about the looks of the Prius. Its design was described as ‘futuristic’ but the nose, with a beak-like appearance, seemed out of sync with the short rear end. The suspension system had a newly-developed front strut and H-shaped torsion beam rear axle with toe-control links.

An engineer hinted to me that this would be the basis of the next generation of platforms for Toyota models and indeed, that has been the case.

The ‘dashboard of the future’ certainly looked like something from a concept car. The instrument panel was missing from the area ahead of the steering wheel, which gave an awkward feeling. Instead, there was a display screen showing the warning lights and speed recessed in the centre of the dashboard just below windscreen.

I questioned this location right away and obviously, I was not the first because the engineer confidently said that I should try driving the car first. Later on, I did admit that it wasn t as dangerous as I thought it would be, requiring the driver to look away from the road ahead. Cleverly, the designers had enlarged the size of the speed display and the location was not really on the periphery of the driver s view either.

The legibility also has something to do with the distance of the display; studies had shown that older drivers could read the more distant display 25% faster than when it was near the steering wheel.

The screen also had an Energy Monitor that showed how power flowed to and from the electric motor and engine. At that time, I felt it was a nice idea for a prototype but wondered if it would distract the driver. I guess there has been no safety issue as it is a common display in today’s Toyota hybrids.

By the time I drove the Prius, I was already familiar with the starting procedure for cars with electric motors or rather, the absence of any start procedure! All that is needed is to turn the ignition key to the ON position, release the brake and press the pedal.  From the Energy  Monitor, I knew the engine was not running and the electric motor was providing the initial propulsion.

Pressing harder, I felt some vibrations and when I looked at the display again, the power flow arrows showed that the engine had kicked in. But the electric motor had disengaged and when I pushed the pedal right to the floor, the tremors increased noticeably as the electric motor started to run again to provide additional power.

I got the Prius up to 100 km/h easily but the acceleration was not particularly inspiring. More impressive was the torque which gave brisk acceleration on the move, but those driveline tremors kept occurring throughout my drive. When I spoke to an engineer about it, he acknowledged the problem and said that they were fine-tuning the software so the transition would not be noticeable.

Engine bay of the first Prius

I think the Prius was the first car I drove which had a drive-by-wire concept. The feel was okay and I was told that the engineers worked very hard to have just the right sort of feel for the accelerator pedal as they were aware that the absence of the usual pressure and feedback would make the driver feel uncomfortable.

Braking was another area that had an unusual feel, I recall. Because the brakes were designed to regenerate energy to the battery (which is normally wasted as heat), the design of the brakes had to be carefully done so that the feel would be similar to conventional systems. Still, I felt that I had to apply a fair amount of pressure to feel the car braking although I think it just needed adapting.

After that first time, the next occasion was in 2000 when UMW Toyota Motor brought a unit in to show to government officials in the hope that a subsidy might be provided to reduce the price. Though Toyota had long-term plans to sell hybrids all over the world, the first generation was pretty much a ‘test’ and no plans were made to sell the car in Malaysia… certainly not at RM200,000, the estimated price at that time!

During the short drive, it occurred to me that air-conditioning would be a major issue in our climate. Though the Prius had an air-conditioning system, it was a draw on the energy used and affected performance. The aerodynamically-optimised shape also meant that a lot of sunshine heat would enter the cabin and make it hot (although the glass did have some special treatment to reduce solar heat).

After 2000, I didn’t get behind the wheel of a Prius for many years and learnt more about hybrid systems driving Honda models. I drove the first Insight part of the way from KL to Singapore and then when the Civic Hybrid was first launched in Malaysia, I tested it for many days. Talking to other motorists about hybrids, I realised that people would buy such cars because they reduced motoring costs, not necessarily because of the ‘green’ technology.

The people in Honda and Toyota, however, stressed more on the environment-friendliness of their cars but I felt that given the high prices, few would be willing to pay so much extra to help ‘save the world’.

Second generation changed to a sleeker liftback style with refinements in the dashboard layout

The next time I drove a Prius was in 2009 and this was the second generation which was a big change from the first generation. It was sleeker and had many improvements that took into consideration the more demanding motoring conditions in America in particular. However, UMW Toyota Motor still didn’t sell the model and the units brought in were for local testing.

Of note was the fact that the air-conditioning was pretty good in all driving conditions.

That same year, I also attended the preview of the new third (current) generation in Hokkaido and it was a big step forward in Toyota hybrids. Of significance was the increase in the engine, from 1.5 litres to 1.8 litres. Increasing the displacement would seem to be bad for fuel economy but in the case of the hybrid system, it actually improves operating efficiency by allowing the engine to spin at lower revs at cruising speeds while giving more torque.

Needless to say, the transition between electric motor and petrol engine is seamless and you will never know which is in use unless you watch the Energy Monitor.

Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

Third generation (left) continues with liftback style started with the second generation (right)

With the third generation, Toyota has made an even bigger push globally to popularise hybrids and it has helped that a number of governments (including the Malaysian one) provide subsidies or tax exemptions to lower their purchase price. This saw a sudden surge in sales in Malaysia as for the first time, all Malaysians could buy cars duty-free (like diplomats and royalty). The main reason for the surge was the lower price since hybrid technology has already been reasonably well accepted in spite of such cars not having been marketed until a couple of years ago.

Even Honda Malaysia didn’t push its hybrid models hard as their price was high (before the tax exemption).

Toyota hybrid models available in the Japanese market today

Since the first generation, Toyota’s hybrid line-up has expanded considerably. From just one model, it now offers 12 different passenger models as well as two commercial vehicles (mostly in Japan). That doesn’t include the hybrids in the Lexus range which go all the way up to the flagship LS600L.

Engine bay of the latest Prius. The powertrain name changed from Toyota Hybrid System to Hybrid Synergy Drive

Though I have long viewed hybrid powertrains as being transitional, ie a bridge between petrol engines and future powertrains using different energy, Toyota officials say that is not really the case. They continue to spend money on hybrid RD because the technology will also be used in future powertrains which will most likely run on electric motors.

The next big thing in hybrid technology is the plug-in system and there is now a Prius variant with such technology on sale in a few countries. While looking like a standard Prius, the plug-in variant (PHV) offers the benefits of both a hybrid as well as an electric vehicle. Where the standard Prius battery pack is recharged by the generator and regenerative braking, the PHEV’s battery pack – which is the lithium-ion type instead of the nickel-metal hydride type – can be recharged from an external source like a home power supply.

This means that the energy stored can be maximised and furthermore, a lithium-ion battery has a higher energy density so it is more powerful. This means it has improved performance and in many cases, as studies show, many motorists might not even need to run on the petrol engine on a typical commute. The PHV variant can do about 20+ kms powered by just the electric motor alone whereas the standard Prius has a very limited range and a low maximum speed.

Latest Prius plug-in hybrid looks like the standard Prius but has an additional lid on the right side for the recharging port

I had a chance to try the Prius PHV briefly in Japan last month and it was surprising to find that the system did not switch to the petrol engine even when pushed hard. With the standard Prius, hard acceleration will immediately start the petrol engine to get the additional torque but the PHV variant can go up to about 100 km/h on electric power. That’s great since no fuel is used as long as the engine stays off.

And I really loved it when the car was in electric mode as it was smooth and quiet, almost like gliding along the road.

Given the slow pace of retiring the internal combustion engine, I think that hybrids will be around for quite some time more. As battery and electric motor technology advances, increased performance will be possible to the extent that the engine will be smaller again. In time, it may even become a back-up system in case of electrical failure.

DOES PRIUS MEAN ANYTHING? The Japanese manufacturers are usually quite diligent in explaining what the names of their cars mean. But for the Prius, there was no footnote on this at the start. There was a Toyota concept car in 1995 called Prius but even back then, there was no explanation on the name. There is, however, such a Latin word and it means before or formerly (which perhaps evolved into previous in the English language).

Strange choice. Or maybe Toyota was hinting that its new model is really one which is prius something much more advanced to come? Anyway, the name is reasonably unique and other than appearing in parts of ancient texts, the only other product that had the same name (in the late 1990s) was a line of computers from Hitachi.

To know more about Toyota hybrid models, visit  |  For information on Lexus hybrid models,  visit

Toyota Prius PHV Electric Cars

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