Five-Point Inspection: 1997 Toyota Prius

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole
The Toyota Prius is one of the most contentious vehicles available today. On the one hand it rankles automotive enthusiasts like few other cars. They decry its bland styling and lifeless driving experience.

At the same time this hybrid is beloved by environmentalists hell-bent on saving pandas and stopping climate change.

Between these two extremes are normal folks that just want to save money at the gas pump, and fortunately for them this is something the Prius excels at.

The 2013 model offers whopping-big fuel-economy numbers. Combined, it delivers 50 miles per gallon according to Uncle Sam. It’s amazing how far the car has come from its first generation.

It’s hard to believe the Toyota Prius is closing in on its 20th birthday, but it is. This fuel-sipping compact launched back in 1997, going on sale exclusively in the Japanese home market. And since its debut the car has been saving gasoline by the tanker-load.

When it launched, Bill Clinton still lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Steve Jobs just returned to Apple and James Cameron’s Titanic was gracing silver screens around the world. The ‘90s were heady times indeed.

The Prius has the distinction of being the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car, which was quite an achievement at the time. It’s truly the one that started it all. In fact its name is Latin meaning “to go before.”

The Prius’ powertrain was and arguably still is a technological marvel. The ’97 model features a 1.5-liter gasoline engine that provides all of 58 horsepower. It’s paired with a permanent magnet electric motor with a torque peak of 225 lb-ft. It’s juiced by a 6.5 amp-hour nickel-metal hydride battery pack. An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) serves as a moderator between the powertrain and wheels.

The American version, which went on sale a year or so later, supposedly delivered 52 miles per gallon in city driving and up to 45 on the highway. Additionally the car’s emissions were squeaky clean. It allegedly released 90 percent fewer smog-forming leftovers than conventional cars of the era.

Test driving this automotive milestone was a surprising experience, but not for the reasons you might think. You’re probably expecting me to unleash a fusillade of complaints directed at the poor car’s driving dynamics, but I’m sorry my friend, you’re sadly mistaken.

What was remarkable about this 16-year-old vehicle was just how similar it felt to a brand-new Prius. Sure, it was a little slower, slightly noisier and not quite as refined as a showroom fresh 2013 version, but other than these minor differences it drove almost exactly the same. The engine smoothly cycled on and off as necessary and you could feel the electric motor deliver an extra boost when heavy acceleration was required. Toyota got the drivetrain right back in 1997 and they’ve been improving it ever since.

Despite its efficiency and cutting-edge powertrain the first-generation Prius was, and still is, far from perfect. It’s laughably unstylish; the car isn’t even dorky enough to be interesting, it’s simply blandness incarnate.

The interior is just as strange; the cockpit is unmistakably mid-‘90s. Some might call the Prius’ cabin boring, but I call it simple. The décor is a symphony of beige and light gray with questionable graining on its various surfaces. The fact that the test car was right-hand drive made this experience even weirder. It was like piloting something from an alternate universe.

The front-half of the passenger space is graced with some sort of quasi-bench seat and a strangely truncated center console. Can someone sit there? Does the bin have enough room for anything larger than a pack of pocket tissue? Nobody knows; it’s all very vague.

Moving from the center console to the center stack, you can’t help but notice the gigantic gear shifter, which is reminiscent of a robotic phallus, complete with a button and a leather boot. Beyond this mildly off-putting feature the car even has a cassette deck, something that strangely made me want to watch a marathon of Seinfeld reruns.

As the old saying goes, the more things become different from how they used to be, the more they remain exactly as they were in pastimes. Right? The 1997 Toyota Prius was a revolutionary car when it went on sale in Japan. It was the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid.

Over the years it’s saved countless gallons of gasoline as well as tons (literally) of nasty tailpipe emissions. In the process it’s even spawned an entire family of Toyota hybrids, from the standard-issue Prius, to a versatile wagon model to an affordable compact version and even a plug-in variant.

Beyond these cars the Prius has also kick-started an entire segment of vehicles from competing automakers. Would Ford have ever built a C-Max hybrid had the Prius never been introduced? Probably not. That, more than anything else, is this car’s legacy.

Curious about shopping for a new Prius? You can learn more about Toyota’s entire family of hybrids in AutoGuide’s new car section. Or if you prefer, navigate directly to the latest version of the car that started it all by clicking here.

Discuss this story at our Toyota forum.

Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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