The Prius: Culture and Car Design

My parents own a first-generation Toyota Prius.

Introduced along with the Honda Insight as the two first commercially available hybrid electric vehicles, the Prius was an innovation being introduced into turn-of-the-century “bigger is better” culture as an alternative to the gas-guzzling SUVs that were the standard of affluence at the time. It was first available in the United States in 2001.

Its status as an untested new idea is reflected in its conservative design. While its short, round shape plays up the “cute” appeal (established as a working strategy with the VW New Beetle), its general look-and-feel is similar to other compact sedans. Early prototypes had a longer nose and tail, making them look even more like the ordinary Civics and Camrys on the road. The first-generation Prius strove to be foremost an ordinary car.

My sister and her husband own a second-generation Prius.

The Prius, of course, was a runaway success. There were long wait lists for the limited supplies of price-capped cars, and used car prices rose to well above the price of hard-to-get new vehicles. Driving a Prius became a positive environmental statement, reflecting the cultural change wherein environmentalism became mainstream as global warming came to be a widely accepted, important issue.

The design of the second-generation Prius, released in 2004, is a response to these changes. Finding no need to make the car “blend in,” the designers focused on aerodynamics, adopting a Kammback design to maximize fuel efficiency. The second-generation Prius also became a high-tech car with the introduction of features like a push-button starter and a backup camera.

Sadly, I cannot claim to own a third-generation Prius.

As awareness of climate change continued to heighten, environmentalism became more and more “cool,” a pun certainly not lost on the green crowd. Al Gore’s 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth”, its subsequent Academy Award, and his 2007 Peace Prize all testify to environmentalism’s move towards being a focus of culture. Hybrid-driving became the easiest and most public way to advertise one’s small carbon footprint, especially in combination with an appropriate bumper sticker or license plate and holder.

The third-generation Prius, released just last year, takes advantage of this trend. Its design keeps the compact liftback shape of the second generation Prius, but adds sharper lines and distinctive headlights and taillights. These changes give the Prius an edgy, futuristic look specifically designed to stand out from other cars, including other hybrids.

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All photos are from commons.wikimedia.org.¬† They do not picture my family’s actual vehicles.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Prius: Culture and Car Design

  1. Mom S

    You may remember that we purchased our 2002 Prius with quite a bit of trepidation. As I recall, we had resigned ourselves to possibly using the vehicle as an oversized planter in the front yard if the battery turned out to be short-lived and outrageously expensive to replace. We have been pleased with the car’s performance over the past 8 years and hope to be driving it for many more to come. The statement we were making was “I sure hope this works,” and it seems to have worked quite well. Now we are moving on to the even more radical statement of “I hope I make it to work in one piece on my bike today!”

  2. Joe Sullivan

    In 2012 Toyota is planning on releasing the 4th generation, a plug-in version. They say it will go 15 miles on battery power alone. That is enough to get me to work and back without using gasoline.

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