White Toyota Prius Mk3
(Image credit: press)

The cultural history of the Toyota Prius is an object lesson in how to soften up consumers and get new tech into the marketplace.

Easily the most famous hybrid car in the world, a position attained by the twin prong strategy of being first and being persistent, the Prius is now in its third incarnation.

On sale in Europe from Autumn 2009, Prius Mk3 builds upon the buzz of the first two cars, enhancing the efficiency of Toyota's hybrid drive system and generally fleshing out the look and feel so that – to all intents and purposes – the Prius acts no differently from a conventional car.

White Toyota Prius Mk3

(Image credit: press)

See more of the third incarnation of the Toyoto Prius, easily the most famous hybrid car in the world

This last point is crucial. While the first Prius of 1997 was visually bland it garnered attention thanks to the high-profile list of celebrity owners. By the time the second generation car broke cover in 2004, the company had coaxed its design team into slightly more self-expression, in the process creating the 'hybrid style' most recently aped by the Honda Insight. Prius III is more of the same, bulbous rather than sleek, but with a faint echo of old-school American futurism in its swooping lines and large lamp glasses. It's as if we're getting very late deliveries of a future promised a half century ago.


Inside, the cabin is airy, although fixtures and fittings are lightweight (the doors shut with a metallic 'sproing' that implies cost, rather than weight, efficiencies). The dashboard is far less confusing than the earlier cars, condensing the complex inner workings of the car into an easy-to-read display. In a nutshell, the Prius’s Hybrid Synergy Drive has a petrol engine supported by a bank of batteries, which are charged through kinetic energy generated by braking. At rest, the engine switches off altogether, and the latest model also offers an 'EV' mode that allows the car to coast along on electric power alone, albeit at limited speeds and very limited range. While keener Prius prodders managed to hack second-generation cars to perform a similar function, the superior hybrid tech and better batteries in the new car make this eerily quiet electric mode a genuinely futuristic experience.

Fuel efficiency

The real-world advantages of ultra fuel efficiency are plain to see; it's easy to understand why people become 'hypermilers', that subset of West Coast hybrid geeks who devote their time to extracting every last inch from each drop of gasoline. For this is a machine that rewards smoothness and deliberate, methodical driving. There's something supremely satisfying about ramping up the high mileage stats; equally, you can understand why the car's detractors accuse Prius drivers of being smug.


It's also important to note that this mid-size car isn't exactly a nippy city machine: it's not an urban car, but a suburban one. Perhaps in American terms - the Prius's largest market - it feels small, but in densely packed Europe the car offers no real advantages in terms of parking or manoeuvrability. Ultimately, however, none of this matters. The Prius is an utterly practical, discretely designed and easy-to-use machine, one that delivers some of the very lowest CO2 figures on the market, as well as all-important exemption from London's congestion charge. The Prius continues to push gently at our perceptions of what an everyday car should be, implying that the ongoing revolution in automotive technology will be a velvet one.

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.