Gas prices are rising, so you'd think that the 2011 Toyota Prius hybrid would be the car of the moment.

But with car production halted in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, Prius supplies are already growing tight.

And Toyota is hardly helping the thriftiest buyers, those who want only a bare-bones version of the car with the highest combined EPA mileage rating: 50 mpg.

Since the redesigned 2010 Toyota Prius launched almost two years ago, buyers have been perplexed by the four available trim levels, which are named II, III, IV, and V.

The mysterious Prius I, the missing model of the new Prius, had been sold only to fleets as of late 2009. Retail buyers aren't allowed to order one.

2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

Last week, Toyota's Sam Butto confirmed that the company continues to offer the Prius I model solely to fleet buyers, and only in tiny quantities.

Toyota has no plans to make the Prius I available for retail sales, Butto said.

He also reported that Toyota sold a total of just 365 Prius I models to fleet buyers during 2010 (in addition to the 177 units sold in 2009).

Compared to the Prius II, the least-expensive retail mode, the Prius I omits have the following features:
  • Cruise control
  • Touch Tracer Display
  • Smart Key
  • EV mode
  • Rear wiper
  • Tonneau cover
  • Heated side mirrors
  • Satellite radio antenna and satellite capable radio
  • Rear armrest with 2 cupholders
  • 2 speakers
  • Rear heater duct
  • Passenger seatback pocket
  • Foldable rear headrests
  • Underbody spoilers/spats

2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

Now, at some point in the future, those 500-plus Prius I vehicles bought by fleets will reach the end of their life and be sold as used cars.

(Though, given the apparent long life of their Hybrid Synergy Drive battery packs and electric components, that may take a while.)

But if you ever see a used Prius up for sale with very few amenities--the missing rear-window wiper may be the best exterior clue--now at least you'll know what it is.

Ultra-thrifty buyers who want a basic new 2011 Toyota Prius, meanwhile, are out of luck. No doubt their friendly Toyota salesperson will point them toward the not-very-nice 2011 Yaris subcompact.

But it's just not the same, is it?


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