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Toyota Prius and the birth of the hybrid car



Despite continuous design innovation and ever-changing engineering processes, the basic functionality of the average car - an internal combustion engine running off petrol/diesel -  was unchanged for 100 years. Until October 1997 when Toyota began selling the first-generation Prius: the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. 

(Image via Toyota)

Hybrid history

Since the earliest days of the car, as far back as 1898, automotive manufacturers were attempting to build a vehicle with a combined internal combustion engine and electric motor. Some variations were even sold - such as Ferdinand Porsche’s System Lohner-Porsche Mixte. But they couldn’t compete in terms of either performance or production cost. It wasn’t until the 1973 oil crisis that manufacturers would seriously consider hybrid technology as a viable option - first due to the then high fuel prices and later due to environmental and global warming concerns. Billions were spent on alternatives, but it wouldn’t be until the late 1990s that a viable option was born. 

In 1993 Toyota set a target to build a low-emission car “for a cleaner future”. Just two years later they were able to unveil the first hybrid concept at the Tokyo Motor Show. In 1997 the Toyota Prius NHW10 went on sale in Japan. 

(Image via Toyota)

Production of the first generation Prius was undertaken in the Takaoka plant in Toyota, Aichi where over 37,425 models would be produced over the next two years. It won the 1997 Car of the Year Japan Award and the 1998 Automotive Researchers’ and Journalists’ Conference Car of the Year Award in Japan. 

The first generation was only available in Japan, but success saw expansion with the launch of Generation II - the NHW11. Launched in 2000, the new Prius was sold in limited numbers across Asia, America, Europe and Australia. 

Prius remains synonymous with hybrid technology, despite nearly every automotive brand launching their own hybrid models within just a few short years. By 2017 over 6 million units had been sold and the brand continues to be the most recognisable “clean” vehicle. 

(Image via Toyota)

How Toyota did it

One of the primary concerns that had to be overcome was the longevity of the high-voltage battery. Toyota had to first develop a battery that would last as long as a standard car, while still remaining a reasonable size and weight to fit to not impede performance. A nickel-metal hydride battery pack was developed that would suit the purpose, and could be hidden behind the back seats.

The system integrated with a four-cylinder 1.5 litre NZ-series engine allied to a compact, high-torque electric drive motor and a separate generator. 

The design of the Prius came from Toyota’s California-based Calty Design centre, who sought a look that would stand out, without veering too much from traditional styles - to ensure people would still want to drive it. Like many aspects of the car, it was shaped for efficiency with a low drag coefficient value of Cd0.29. It was also sized between a supermini and a small family car - Toyota weren’t looking for the supercar market, they wanted something practical for the average driver.

(Image via Toyota)

 The first Prius was a success of clean running, efficiency, style and driveability. The Hybrid System had a theoretical range of 560 miles with a 0-62mph of 13.4 seconds and a maximum speed of 99mph. It had a fuel economy of 57.6 mpg and produced just 114g/km of C02.

It came with other innovations as well, from an intelligent power system that managed the engine and motor to suit driving conditions, to switching off the engine at a stop. And it introduced a regenerative braking system, capturing kinetic energy and using it to recharge the battery.

(Image via Toyota)

The Prius introduced the world to a new era of automotive technology that is continuing to change the way we make, buy and drive cars today. Hybrid and electric cars are more popular than ever, and there is a greater emphasis on smart technology and boosted efficiencies. Whether you’re a fan of the Toyota Prius or not, it is a near-ubiquitous sight in many cities and represents a massive leap towards a low-emission automotive industry.

Fifty years of engineering

Fircroft has been supporting engineers since 1970. As we celebrate our 50th year we’re marking the greatest engineering accomplishments of the past half-century. Read last week’s look back at 1996 and the installation of the massive Troll A platform in the North Sea.

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Toyota Prius and the birth of the hybrid car - Time to read 4 min
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