A lot of media discussion these days seems to focus overly on the low sales of plug-in electric cars (this piece from Friday, for instance).

That despite the fact that plug-ins are selling faster than hybrid vehicles did at the same phase of their launch.

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

2001 Toyota Prius Sedan

But automotive history may provide another piece of context for looking at how plug-ins are doing these days.

Very first Prius

It's the inevitable comparison between the 2013 Nissan Leaf and the 2001 Toyota Prius, that maker's very first hybrid model sold in the U.S.

The Prius was actually launched in 1997, but it was sold only in Japan until a revised model emerged for 2001 and exports began.

MORE: 2015 Toyota Prius: Next Hybrid Aims For 55 MPG, More Room, Better Handling

We had a chance to drive one of the very first 1997 Priuses at the recent Toyota Hybrid World Tour event in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

To be honest, the right-hand-drive Japanese-market sedan was pretty terrible.

Loud, little power, squealing tires

It was small--a subcompact sedan--underpowered, and had odd controls.

Original 1997 Toyota Prius for Japanese market at Toyota Hybrid World Tour, Aug 2013

Original 1997 Toyota Prius for Japanese market at Toyota Hybrid World Tour, Aug 2013

The mechanical selector in the dashboard to put the car into forward motion operated with a major clunk, like something from an oceanliner.

Acceleration to 70 mph was nothing short of torturous, and the 1.5-liter engine switched on and sped up to an anguished howl at the merest hint of demand for power.

The first Prius did frequently drop into all-electric mode at lower speeds, however, showing where its fuel savings came from.

As for handling, there was an enormous amount of body roll, and those first low-rolling-resistance tires seemed to squeal on anything more than gentle turns.

You couldn't sell such a car today--though, to be fair, it's based on 20-year-old technology.

The 2001 Prius that went on sale in the States had a more powerful engine and several other upgrades, with an EPA rating of 41 mpg combined (using today's rating system).

It was still something of an outlier in the Toyota lineup, and didn't sell all that well despite its gas mileage.

Small volumes, big plans

But here's the point from automotive history: Toyota sold only small numbers of that first Prius from 2001 through 2003, but it had big plans from the start.

Nissan has been more open about its plans--CEO Carlos Ghosn used to say that by 2020, one in 10 Nissan vehicles would be battery-electric--but the Leaf is just an opening salvo.

Technician attaches bus-bars to lithium-ion cell stack assembly at plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

Technician attaches bus-bars to lithium-ion cell stack assembly at plant in Smyrna, Tennessee

The company has added Leaf production capacity far more quickly than Toyota did, Leaf assembly now taking place not only at the Oppama, Japan, plant where it began, but also at Sunderland in the U.K. and Smyrna, Tennessee, as well.

(It seems likely that the updates to its Smyrna assembly plant to add up to 150,000 electric cars a year may have been prompted by the 2009 availability of $1.6 billion in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy.)

Many more to come

But it is clear that the Leaf is just the first of many all-electric cars that will be launched by Nissan and its French alliance partner Renault over the balance of the decade.

The next Leaf, in perhaps 2016 or 2017, should be quite something. Just consider the 2003 New York Auto Show, when Toyota unveiled the 2004 Prius.

Original 1997 Toyota Prius for Japanese market at Toyota Hybrid World Tour, Aug 2013

Original 1997 Toyota Prius for Japanese market at Toyota Hybrid World Tour, Aug 2013

A larger, more powerful five-door hatchback with a radical and distinctive shape, the second-generation Prius launched into the teeth of a spike in gasoline prices.

Suddenly, the lure of its sky-high EPA ratings (up to 46 mpg combined, using today's rating system) became quite powerful.

Long-term view

And Prius sales haven't looked back; the Prius is now a line of four separate vehicles, which are now Toyota's third best-selling passenger car in the U.S. market.

Toyota has always taken a long-term view of hybrid-electric technology. For years, it was said to have not only five- and 10-year plans, but 25- and 50-year plans as well.

Auto engineers are very, very good at making complex electromechanical systems smaller, cheaper, and more reliable--and that's just what Toyota did.

So how's that working out for the company? Well, Toyota has built 5 million hybrids thus far--and it owns two-thirds of the hybrid market globally.

Look at the Leaf, and dream

Today, Toyota sells 23 different hybrid vehicles across the world--and it continues to launch additional hybrid models each year.

We should add, by the way, that the 2013 Nissan Leaf--slightly updated with features U.S. buyers wanted, like a 6-6-kilowatt charger--is somewhat more mainstream in size, amenities, and performance than was that first Prius.

So if you own a Nissan Leaf, have a look at the next first-generation Prius you see on the street.

Then imagine today's Prius--and what kinds of advances you'll see in the 2025 Leaf.

Toyota provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to attend the Toyota Hybrid World Tour event and bring you this first-person report.


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