We saw our very first 2010 Toyota Prius parked on the street today, and there will be many more to come. But before we get all carried away with the new kid in town and its shiny solar moonroof, we want to take a moment.

It's only fitting that we pause and pay tribute to the 2009 Toyota Prius, the last model year of the car that really and truly put hybrid-electric cars on the map.

For six model years (2004-2009), the second-generation Prius defined the very image of "hybrid car". Its high-tailed hatchback shape came to signify maximum fuel economy and a light touch on the earth, plus the tantalizing promise of electric drive.

It was lauded by green car fans and environmentalists around the world, hailed as an engineering triumph, and perhaps even paved the road for Toyota's takeover from General Motors as the world's largest carmaker.

On the other hand, the Toyota Prius also stood for nerdy and annoying environmentalism. It was reviled as the 'Pious' and, in that role, even starred in its own episode of South Park.

Absolutely shocking

But it's hard to overstate how shocking the 2004 Toyota Prius seemed when it was unveiled at the New York auto show in spring 2003. Even the usually understated Toyota called it, "a world premiere of true global significance."

With a wheelbase fully 6 inches longer than the 2000-2003 Prius it replaced, and so much interior room that it was classified as a midsize car by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 2004 Prius delivered hybrid power to mainstream buyers.

Over the past six years, the second-generation Prius has seen two boom-bust cycles. Initially, it did better than the smaller, less powerful car it replaced. Its 46-mpg combined EPA rating saw sales soar as gas got pricier a couple of years after its launch.

But by early 2006, with gas prices back down below $2 per gallon, Toyota dealers had to offer rebates to move pretty much any Prius off the lot.

That all changed when gas prices hit $4 per gallon in 2007; then there wasn't a Prius to be found for love nor money. The cars literally stayed only hours at the dealer before being delivered to buyers aching to pay far more than sticker for the miracle gasoline miser.

Made in Mississippi, one day

Those sales led Toyota to announce that its next US plant, in Mississippi, would not make trucks as originally planned. Instead, it would bring Prius production to the US--the car's single largest market, and the only site outside Japan to make the car in volume.

Those plans were put on hold late last year, when the global economic slump devastated auto sales. Toyota's US volume plunged 30 percent or more, and the company moved fast to contain costs. When the plant will resume construction is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, give a nod of respect to the nearest 2009 Toyota Prius and its brethren from earlier model years.  As the car that made hybrid technology a reality in the global auto market, it is truly a milestone.

And it did all that quietly, unobtrusively, and with the peculiar, quirky Prius personality that leads people to love 'em or hate 'em. We can say that very few people can ignore a Toyota Prius--and that alone is a mark of its success.

COMPARE: 2010 Toyota Prius vs 2009 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius