2011 Toyota PriusEnlarge Photo
The venerable Toyota Prius hybrid is generally accepted as the car which changed consumer’s attitude toward hybrid-electric drivetrains.
While the Prius wasn’t the very first hybrid to be sold in the U.S. (the original Honda Insight beat it by a few months), it has proven by far the most popular to date.
And with more 1 million Prii sold since it launched in the U.S. 11 years ago, the Toyota Prius is now a regular on used car lots and websites across the U.S.
To help you, we’re covering the basics first and then dealing in-depth with each vehicle on its own page.
Follow the links to navigate among the different models.
How it works
All Prius models are powered by Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain, consisting of a gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors delivering power to the wheels through a planetary gearbox.
Also see: Used Toyota Prius listings
Effectively a computer-controlled continuously-variable transmission (CVT) the Prius on-board computer determines if the car will be powered by the gasoline engine, the electric motor, or a combination of both.
In low power-demand situations, the CVT can send excess power from the car’s engine to the on-board hybrid battery pack by turning one of the motors into a generator.
Gentle braking or deceleration also sends power from the wheels through the CVT to the battery pack by turning one or both motors into generators.
Due to the way the CVT works, sometimes the engine speed of the Prius does not match the speed of the car.
Disconcerting to many first-time Prius drivers, it doesn’t take long to get used to and is caused by the car’s on-board computer running the engine at its most efficient speed for the power demand at the time--making up the difference with electric torque
All three generations of the Toyota Prius are still well supported by both official Toyota garages and a number of independent garages.
Some of the independent garages -- including Carolyn Coquilette's Luscious Garage in San Francisco -- offer upgrade services, including turning your standard Prius into a Plug-in Hybrid that can drive from 10 to 50 miles on all-electric power (depending on which conversion you choose).
However, with Toyota not officially supporting such upgrades, you should examine the consequences of upgrading your car before you commit to such an upgrade.
There’s also a very lively owners’ community, with regional Prius owner’s clubs in most major U.S. cities and many online forums dedicated to the brand.
The battery question
2004-2009 Toyota Prius battery pack, second generationEnlarge Photo
For many years, horror stories and urban myths have claimed that the Toyota Prius battery pack will only last a few years before it needs a replacement, at huge cost.
In general, this isn’t the case -- many Prius models are still functioning with hundreds of thousands of miles on the clock.
Prii younger than 8 years old with under 100,000 miles on the odometer (10 years and 150,000 miles in CA) are covered under Toyota’s original battery warranty.
If you’re worried about the worst-case (and unlikely) scenario, in which you’ll need to read a new battery, we recommend you read our Ultimate Guide to the Toyota Prius Battery Life, Cost and Warranty.
Basic buying advice
Like any other car, we recommend you consider buying a Toyota Prius from a known, reputable dealer.
Also, check that any applicable recalls have been carried out on the car you’re looking to buy. All models of Prius have been involved in various recalls over the years, so make sure you check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) database and Toyota’s own database to make sure your car doesn’t have any outstanding recalls.
Before driving, sit in the driver’s seat and turn the car on. After a few seconds, the engine should turn on and run without any driver input -- before turning itself off after between 30 seconds and a minute.
If the engine continues to run while stationary, races, or you see a battery, engine or turtle error light on the dash, you should get a thorough mechanical inspection before going further.
When driving, make sure you put the car through a variety of road conditions to test acceleration, braking, and handling, remembering that there is normally a slight delay between pressing the accelerator hard and the car responding.