In 1997, Toyota introduced the very first mass-produced hybrid vehicle to the general public in Japan and released it worldwide in 2001. Today, the Prius is sold in more than 40 countries and is touted as the most fuel efficient vehicle sold by the United States EPA.

Toyota wanted a progressive name for its new hybrid car so they chose Prius, which in Latin means [to go] before. Their thought was that the Prius was the leader for the cars to come. The car experienced average success in Japan and in 1999, Toyota decided enough research had been done on the Japanese version to release the Prius in the US.

Initial testing in the U.S., in 1999, before release to the general public nearly sidelined the Prius before its debut. The few drivers involved in the testing were less than impressed. That, combined with no way to determine a viable buyer market for the Prius, almost halted the car’s journey outside of Japan.

Toyota in the U.S. had to do some hard negotiations with Toyota Japan to get the price down to a marketable number. Toyota Japan also had to modify the vehicle’s design to meet certain standards of more discerning buyers in the U.S., like more horsepower, lighter weight, etc. Meanwhile, Honda jumped the gun on Toyota and released its first Hybrid, the Insight, in 1999.

Finally, when the car was first released in the U.S., not everyone was impressed. Performance was lacking; the Prius took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (Corolla only took 10 seconds). The transition from electric to gas powered was not smooth. Nevertheless, the Prius caught on. Toyota was pleasantly surprised that sales the first year exceeded projections and when some Hollywood stars took notice (and purchased the vehicles), things only go better.

In 2003, the Prius was fully redesigned and presented itself as a stylish fashion statement for buyers. It had more power, produced fewer emissions and got better gas mileage. Sales took off: Toyota doubled its sales of the Prius in 2004 and then doubled them again in 2005. People were literally waiting months to get the Prius.

As of today, the Prius is the best selling hybrid vehicle in the U.S. In 2007, Toyota sold more than 180,000 copies. In early 2008, the Prius hit an all time record of more than 20,000 sales in a month as it passed the Ford Explorer on the sales charts.

A new Prius is due in 2010.