First of all, Happy Earth Day. The celebration of our home planet in all its fragility has been an annual thing since 1970.
“Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet,” explains earthday.org, going on to cite emissions from leaded gasoline coming from “inefficient internal combustion cars” as its first example of things that needed to be changed 51 years ago.
Things did start to change, helped along by the oil embargoes of 1973 and the rise of more efficient subcompact cars on the market. Certainly one of the most efficient cars of its day, and even by today’s standards, was the original Toyota Prius. It was introduced as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show 25 years after the first Earth Day and came on the market in Japan in 1997, the first mass-produced hybrid the world had ever seen. It entered the U.S. and other worldwide markets in 2000. The world has never been the same.
True, Ferdinand Porsche developed the Lohner-Porsche hybrid in 1901, but he never sold them in great numbers.
The first-gen U.S.-spec Prius got 42 mpg city, 41 highway, according to the EPA, which was remarkable. It wasn’t much to look at, being a shape aimed more at efficiency than style. Sizewise it slotted between the Corolla and the Camry. Sticker price was $19,995.
The Honda Insight debuted in 1997 and actually beat the Prius to the U.S. market, arriving in December 1999, with an even-more remarkable 53 mpg combined. Plus it had a cool shape.
Since then, Toyota has sold over six million Prii worldwide while Honda has moved considerably fewer Insights. Indeed, Toyota and Lexus alone have sold more than 15 million hybrids since the first Prius left the first showroom oh-so-many years ago. But the market has gone way beyond these humble powertrain pioneers. Now there are hybrid cars and crossovers from almost every carmaker on the planet, from BMW to Volvo. They are performing their role as more-efficient bridges to the true zero-emission vehicles that will be taking over the car market soon enough. But it all started with that humble little Prius concept at Tokyo almost a quarter century ago. Happy almost-birthday Prius. And happy Earth Day Mother Earth.
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