Is The 2001-2003 Toyota Prius A Good Used Car Buy?

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2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

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It was small, unassuming, almost a shrinking violet, really.

The first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid -- launched in the U.S. in 2001 -- was the first five-seat family car to offer hybrid-electric drive and unimaginably high gas mileage. 

Twelve years after its initial launch, the Prius family has grown to include four distinct models: the Prius Liftback, Prius V wagon, Prius C subcompact, and Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

But is the car which started it all -- the original Prius -- still a good car to buy used today? 

To find out, we spent a week with a first-generation Prius on an extended test drive to assess its merits as a used-car purchase.

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

Enlarge Photo

A History Lesson

The original Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan in 1997. Marrying a 30-kilowatt electric motor with a small 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, it offered Japanese customers a way of having big-car feel with small-car fuel economy. 

Despite some major design flaws -- including poor performance in both hot climates and high altitudes -- the original Prius became a popular car in Japan, prompting Toyota to introduce the fuel-sipping subcompact sedan to a worldwide audience. 

To satisfy U.S. driving styles, the export model received an updated, more powerful 33-kW electric motor, while the engine was given variable valve timing to further enhance economy. It made its debut in the U.S. for the 2001 model year. 

Selling for $19,995 -- with up to $2,000 of Federal income-tax credit later available to hybrid-car buyers-- only 5,600 Prius sedans were sold in the first year of sales, mainly in California.

By the time it was replaced with the second-generation Prius for 2004, a total of 41,300 first-generation Priuses had found buyers in the U.S. 

Our Test Car 

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

Enlarge Photo

Our test car -- a 2001 Prius sedan with only 76,000 miles on the clock -- belongs to Toyota Great Britain’s heritage collection. That means it's in excellent condition for its age. 

Despite the U.K. market specification, it features the same engine and drivetrain as comparable U.S. models, along with electric windows, climate control, a multifunction color display in the dashboard, and both CD player and tape deck. 

The interior of the original Prius feels surprisingly dated--not helped by Toyota’s goal of making the Prius as frugal as possible.

While the grey cloth seats are reasonably comfortable, and offer passable lumbar support, the all-plastic trim feels cheap to the touch.  Worse still, the sun visors feel poorly made and fragile. In fact, the last time we experienced sun visors this flimsy was at the wheel of a 50-year old Morris Minor sedan.

While the interior feels dated, it benefits from decent sound deadening, making even freeway travel a civilized affair, with none of the rattles and creaks often found in a car of this age. 

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

Enlarge Photo

Behind the Wheel

Unlike later generations of Toyota Prius, the first-generation model starts with a conventional key. Insert it into the ignition, turn once, and the engine kicks into life, turning itself off once optimum operating temperatures have been reached. 

The gear lever, a quasi-column shifter located on the dash just behind the steering wheel, operates with a reassuring click, while a gear indicator on the upper dash lets you know which gear you’re in. 

Like any other Prius, there’s a significant amount of engine noise on hard acceleration, caused by the engine trying to provide maximum torque through its continually variable transmission. 

Despite its age, our test car felt reassuringly familiar and competent for round-town driving, although we note that freeway driving did require a little extra planning--especially when it came to high-speed overtaking.

Similarly, our test car felt significantly labored when climbing steep hills at freeway speeds, betraying its predilection for city life. 

Steering, as with other Prius models, felt somewhat disconnected from the road, giving a functional but uninspiring driving experience. 

With only 76,000 miles on the clock, we can’t comment on how higher-mileage cars would handle. But we’ve heard numerous anecdotal tales which suggest that when properly maintained, high mileage shouldn’t affect the handling of an early Prius. 

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Comments (28)
  1. Are you retarded? You can't convert UK MPG to US MPG. A MPG is a MPG regardless of what country you're in. Dumba$s.

  2. @Peter: Actually, you're wrong. A U.K. or Imperial gallon is 20 percent larger than a U.S gallon.

    Didn't know that, did you? Try looking stuff up before insulting our writers, hmmmmmmm?

  3. Good a new policy.
    Old policy: Don't insult the writers.
    New policy: Look stuff up, then insult writers.

    But I guess we are still not supposed to insult the commenters so I will leave Peter alone.

  4. I can't believe you guys didn't realise. Isn't Peter Griffin THIS guy?

  5. You mean "The Family Guy"?
    That was lost on me.

  6. Was it all humor? Seems like the "Peter Griffin" character says "I'm retarded" in the show.

  7. Best comment by far!

  8. Peter Griffin, you know how you look right now?
    Well dignity is the opposite of that....

  9. Oh dear this is funny. Without the ad hominem attack he’d just look stupid. With it he looks stupid and rude.

    Of course UK gallons are bigger, it’s because the UK is a much bigger country than America. Right? :-)

  10. EgoWise, yes.

  11. @Pat: Oh, Pat, you're not *really* saying Americans have smaller egos than Brits are you ??

  12. dude, you just embarassed yourself very badly.

    The brits sell fuel in Imperial Gallons or occasionally liters.

    It's bigger then a US Gallon.

  13. There are more comments in this thread
  14. Snarky comments and commentors aside... ;-)

    GREAT article!

    Still a 12-year old car with 76,000 miles on it means an average of roughly 6,333 (and a third) miles per year--WAY BELOW the annual mileage of most cars! (12 to 13.5 thousand miles annually, right?)

    My sister's first-gen Prius (ordered in NYC in April 2001, picked up Sept. 18, 2001--just a week after 9/11!) has about 106,000 miles on it. And it probably has had its fair share of "big" (over $500) repair jobs for a car its age and under-utilization/low mileage. Still, we never got close the EPA rating of 50 MPG in city driving and, at best, we got 40-44 MPG in mixed (mostly highway) driving.

    Right now, we get about 36-39 MPG mixed.

  15. Which bring me to a question. Why does the UK even use Imperial gallons when the rest of Europe uses metric? And why, or why, does the U.S. continue to use a ridiculous method of measurement when the metric system is both well-known and logical.

    I just had to rant. I hate this old system.

  16. Well, some of are bi... I mean bi-lingual... I mean understand both English and Metric.

  17. *snicker* It all goes back to the UK failing to properly adopt SI units way back when. Even when our money (and eventually weight) systems went metric, we held on for dear life to the "old fashioned" system. Even our weather forecast quotes C and F values :)

  18. And I'll bet Nikki knows how many "stones" she is, though she may choose to keep that information private :)

  19. Actually, being married to an American, I weigh myself in pounds... but we won't go there. My exact weight is TOO MANY

  20. @John: WELL !!!!! My goodness gracious sakes alive!

  21. Strangely, the UK doesn't use gallons anymore. Our fuel is sold in litres. However we still use miles, and mpg.
    So we buy our fuel in litres, then convert it to calculate our mpg.

  22. I've owned 1 GenII Prius and 2 GenIII Prius. I wouldn't recommend a GenI Prius to anyone unless they know the history of the particular car. We see too many issues with the older models. Expensive ones.

  23. This is an important review for people that would like an efficient and affordable car. Will there be a part two for the second gen. Prius of which there are many more buzzing around? How about the first gen. Honda Insight? :)

  24. Second this - would make a great series of articles.

  25. @Vladi: Oh, we might perhaps do such an article at some point in the future ... [whistling] ... :)

  26. The current Toyota Prius c is basically the modern incarnation of the first-gen Prius. It uses the same ICE (1NZ-FXE) and also has a smaller electric motor and battery pack like the first-gen (compared to the larger 2nd- and 3rd-generation Prii liftbacks).

    So maybe it might be a better idea to wait another 12 years and pick up a Prius c for cheap if you want the same utility as a gen-1 Prius but with a more refined THS-2 hybrid drivetrain that is less trouble-prone than the gen-1. :)

  27. My 2002 Prius is just about to hit the 300,000km mark. Have always loved driving this car for the low speed torque and tight turning radius - makes for a great city car. Only major repairs have been for front struts, bearings and steering rods. The original brake pads and shoes lasted until 250,000 km! We are still getting a fuel economy of about 5L/100km in the summer and 6-7L/100km in winter. Car still looks great considering the amount of salt that it sees on southern Ontario roads for 6 months of the year.

  28. I have a Gen1 Prius that I bought in May 2001 and have used ever since. 153,000 miles, and only two major problems: The first was a computer malfunction, covered under warranty. The second, two years ago, was a battery failure, which cost me $3000. The dealer said mine was only the second battery they've replaced, and they see a lot of Prii. Otherwise, the car's been a pleasure to own. I get about 43 mpg in warm weather, and 40 in winter. Everything still works fine, I never add oil between changes, haven't replaced anything but the usual parts--wipers, etc. Anyone thinking of buying one should of course have it checked, but you will probably be getting a great car for a low price.

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