As most of you probably know, the Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid car in the world. Ever since 1997, Toyota has been dominating the world market with its no-frills, economical family sedan. More than twenty years and three generations later, the Prius line expanded into a family of vehicles. And with more than nine different variations, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between Prius models.
Luckily, I’m here to tell you all about them. But before we get to these differences, let’s talk about Toyota a bit. Founded in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda, Toyota is the largest company in Japan, and the second-largest car manufacturer in the world. Even though the Volkswagen group takes the first place in total car production, Toyota still holds the #1 spot in hybrid car production. In addition, their revenue is among the top 10 in the world.
That being said, when talking about the Toyota Prius and its evolution, we need to start from the very beginning.
XW10 — First Generation
The story of the Toyota Prius starts in the early ’90s when Toyota set out to create a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly car. Using technology from Japanese bullet trains, they combined a 60hp gasoline engine with a 40hp electric motor.
In addition, Toyota engineered a special planetary gear transmission, which kept the gasoline engine in the optimal rev range. Similar to a CVT transmission, the planetary gear system lacks traditional gears, relying instead on a computer to control the exact gear ratio for optimal efficiency.
All this technology was packed into a four-door family sedan weighing about 1.2 tons. In 1997, Toyota launched this model in Japan, at a price of $16,929. Such a low price for this level of technology, especially back then, meant that Toyota probably sold them at a gigantic loss.
However, their goal was to introduce the hybrid technology and test it out in mass production, which is exactly what they did.
Naturally, the first-generation Prius had some issues. For instance, heat would impact the hybrid system, so the performance tanked in hotter climates. In addition, high altitudes also reduced its performance, leading to the infamous “turtle light.” Namely, when the car detected that its hybrid system was shutting down, it gave off a warning light shaped like a turtle.
Despite its issues, the NHW10 proved to be a major success. Nowadays, it has become more of a collector’s model for Prius enthusiasts. Thanks to its revolutionary technology, the Prius was named Car of the Year in Japan for the 1997-98 model year.
After the success of the NHW10, Toyota updated the Prius to make it more appealing for export markets. Most importantly, they increased the power of both the gasoline engine and the electric motor. The gasoline engine saw a 10hp increase, and the motor saw a mere 4hp increase.
Even though it doesn’t sound like much, that proved to be enough to accommodate the higher driving speeds in Europe and the US. The export version came out in 2000 in Europe, and in 2001 in Australia and the US.
In addition to the engine, the base model now included amenities like a touch screen, air conditioning, and a dash-mounted shift lever. The touch screen showed exactly how the hybrid system operated at all times, to help the driver drive as economically as possible.
Despite its small trunk space and lack of power, the first-generation Prius achieved success on the US market. Its low fuel consumption and emissions, combined with the tax deduction the US government enabled buyers, made the Prius popular with a lot of drivers. However, sales in Europe and Australia still weren’t as high.
XW20 — Second Generation
While Toyota was exporting the first-generation Prius across the world, its engineers were hard at work developing the next-generation model. Instead of a facelift, the Prius went through a total redesign, both inside and out.
While the original Prius was a sedan, the second-gen one was changed to a liftback. Thanks to this update, Toyota significantly increased the Prius’ trunk space and rear legroom. Therefore, they’ve simultaneously decreased the car’s drag coefficient.
A bit later, the hybrid system went through a mild redesign. Even though the gasoline engine remained mostly the same, it received a power increase of about 5hp. However, both the electric motor and the battery were completely overhauled, resulting in a much more stable and efficient system.
In addition, the Prius introduced a fully electric air conditioning system in its second generation. The new AC system cooled the battery much more efficiently, enabling decades of battery longevity. In addition, it unburdened the engine from powering the AC.
Introduced in 2003, the second-generation Prius achieved worldwide success, winning the 2005 European Car of the Year award. In addition, it won more than 10 other awards, and it cemented Toyota’s dominance in the hybrid car market.
XW30 — Third Generation
Since the second-generation Prius was so popular and reliable, Toyota didn’t want to mess with the formula too much. Instead, they focused on improving the flaws of the previous generation model, along with some technology updates to keep up with the times.
For starters, Toyota finally ditched the 1.5-liter gasoline engine and replaced it with a modified version of its well-known 1.8-liter engine. It was the first engine that required no belts at all, thanks to the electric AC and water pump. In addition, both the motor and batteries were smaller and lighter, all the while producing more power than the previous model.
What’s more, Toyota has introduced a new type of material for the interior. The material, made from plant-derived bioplastics, doesn’t require any oil for production. Finally, they’ve also redesigned the body for an even lower drag coefficient and high-speed stability.
Unfortunately, Toyota suffered a disaster with the third-generation Prius. Thanks to multiple production issues, Toyota had to recall millions of vehicles.
XW50 — Fourth Generation
Finally, we reached the current-generation Toyota Prius. First launched in 2015, it set out to redefine the Prius after the disastrous third generation. The car is built on a totally new platform. This platform lowers the car’s center of gravity, increases rigidity, and improves the interior space. In addition, the new Prius features a redesigned suspension for better cornering and comfort on bumpy roads.
For the fourth generation, Toyota started developing the plug-in hybrid model parallel with the regular model. The PHV received widespread acclaim, while the regular model still saw success with a 10% fuel efficiency increase. In addition, Toyota introduced the first four-wheel-drive Prius for the 2019 facelift.
However, the fourth-generation Prius saw true competition for the first time. Nowadays, most manufacturers have a hybrid lineup, with some even offering fully electric vehicles. However, the Prius brand seems to be holding on, with the Prius still being the preferred hybrid car.
Other Models in the Prius Family
Prius Plug-in Hybrid
Also known as ZVW35, this Prius model was based on a somewhat less exciting, third-generation Prius. The demonstration version was first introduced in 2011, and the production started in 2012.
As you may be able to tell, the difference between the third-gen and Prius PHV lies in the battery. Third-gen Prius is a classic hybrid, relying mostly on its 1.8l gasoline engine. On the other hand, the Plug-in Hybrid relies mostly on its electric motor and lithium-ion batteries.
Prius PHV actually has a first and second-generation model. The first generation model looked pretty much the same as the XW30 (third-gen Prius). However, it featured 4.4kWh lithium-ion batteries and had an all-electric range of 10 to 15 miles. That may have seemed impressive at the time, but not as much now that we have the Prius Prime.
Some know it as second-gen Prius Plug-in Hybrid, some as Prius PHV, and the folks in the U.S. know it under the name Prius Prime. Whatever you may prefer to call it, this model is a huge improvement to the previous one.
Unlike with the first-gen model, Toyota updated the second-generation Prius PHV in almost every way possible. It was released in 2016 parallel with the Prius XW50, and it specifically catered to the US market. And there’s nothing not to love about it, in my opinion.
Aside from the much sleeker, more modern design, the Prime uses an 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery. The motor remained the same 1.8l four-cylinder. However, considering the 25-mile all-electric range, it’s safe to say you won’t be needing it much.
In 2017, Toyota tried to improve the Prime’s efficiency by removing the back-middle seat. However, for the 2019/2020 model, they’ve brought the seat back and added a few changes to the design, such as the exciting new black interior.
This model can be seen under many names — Prius v, Prius α (alpha), Prius +, etc. The biggest difference between the previous models is the body. Although it resembles its Prius cousins, retaining the triangular silhouette, Prius v is actually a compact MPV or midsize minivan.
Much like any other minivan on the market, it seems that the Prius v was intended for families. It has much more interior cargo space than all the other Prius models I talked about (34.3 cubic feet, to be exact). This model is also taller and has 38 inches of legroom.
When it comes to other specs and characteristics, Prius v is nothing to write home about. It’s a hybrid that relies mostly on its 1.8l Atkinson cycle inline-four engine, with the addition of the standardnickel-metal hydride batteries. In Europe, you can actually get this model with 3 rows of seats and lithium-ion batteries instead (Prius +).
The Toyota Prius c (city), also known as the Toyota Aqua to our Japanese friends, is a smaller, subcompact version of the Prius. Unlike the Prius v, it was designed for younger folks who don’t need much cargo space.
As far as the engine is concerned, it features the third-gen Hybrid Synergy Drive and a four-cylinder 1.5l gasoline engine. This engine resembles that of the earliest Prius models, only without the belt. Also, it has a 0.9 kWh nickel-metal hydride battery.
In 2015, the Prius c got its first facelift. Toyota changed the design of the headlights and the front bumper, making it resemble their GT86 model. There was yet another facelift in 2017, which brought about subtle changes like a different bonnet shape, wheel arches, etc. However, for some reason, the powertrain has remained the same throughout.
With over 9 different models, each with their own respective upgrades and facelifts, the Toyota Prius remains one of the most versatile and wide-spread car models in the world. It may have had its ups and downs, but that wasn’t enough to compromise its sales and overall value.