By Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield
It was small, unassuming, almost a shrinking violet, really.
The first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid -- launched in the U.S. in 2001 -- was the first five-seat family car to offer hybrid-electric drive and unimaginably high gas mileage.
Twelve years after its initial launch, the Prius family has grown to include four distinct models: the Prius Liftback, Prius V wagon, Prius C subcompact, and Prius Plug-in Hybrid.
But is the car which started it all -- the original Prius -- still a good car to buy used today?
To find out, we spent a week with a first-generation Prius on an extended test drive to assess its merits as a used-car purchase.
A History Lesson
The original Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan in 1997. Marrying a 30-kilowatt electric motor with a small 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine, it offered Japanese customers a way of having big-car feel with small-car fuel economy.
Despite some major design flaws -- including poor performance in both hot climates and high altitudes -- the original Prius became a popular car in Japan, prompting Toyota to introduce the fuel-sipping subcompact sedan to a worldwide audience.
To satisfy U.S. driving styles, the export model received an updated, more powerful 33-kW electric motor, while the engine was given variable valve timing to further enhance economy. It made its debut in the U.S. for the 2001 model year.
Selling for $19,995 -- with up to $2,000 of Federal income-tax credit later available to hybrid-car buyers-- only 5,600 Prius sedans were sold in the first year of sales, mainly in California.
By the time it was replaced with the second-generation Prius for 2004, a total of 41,300 first-generation Priuses had found buyers in the U.S.
Our Test Car
Our test car -- a 2001 Prius sedan with only 76,000 miles on the clock -- belongs to Toyota Great Britain's heritage collection. That means it's in excellent condition for its age.
Despite the U.K. market specification, it features the same engine and drivetrain as comparable U.S. models, along with electric windows, climate control, a multifunction color display in the dashboard, and both CD player and tape deck.
The interior of the original Prius feels surprisingly dated--not helped by Toyota's goal of making the Prius as frugal as possible.
While the grey cloth seats are reasonably comfortable, and offer passable lumbar support, the all-plastic trim feels cheap to the touch. Worse still, the sun visors feel poorly made and fragile. In fact, the last time we experienced sun visors this flimsy was at the wheel of a 50-year old Morris Minor sedan.
While the interior feels dated, it benefits from decent sound deadening, making even freeway travel a civilized affair, with none of the rattles and creaks often found in a car of this age.
Behind the Wheel
Unlike later generations of Toyota Prius, the first-generation model starts with a conventional key. Insert it into the ignition, turn once, and the engine kicks into life, turning itself off once optimum operating temperatures have been reached.
The gear lever, a quasi-column shifter located on the dash just behind the steering wheel, operates with a reassuring click, while a gear indicator on the upper dash lets you know which gear you're in.
Like any other Prius, there's a significant amount of engine noise on hard acceleration, caused by the engine trying to provide maximum torque through its continually variable transmission.
Despite its age, our test car felt reassuringly familiar and competent for round-town driving, although we note that freeway driving did require a little extra planning--especially when it came to high-speed overtaking.
Similarly, our test car felt significantly labored when climbing steep hills at freeway speeds, betraying its predilection for city life.
Steering, as with other Prius models, felt somewhat disconnected from the road, giving a functional but uninspiring driving experience.
With only 76,000 miles on the clock, we can't comment on how higher-mileage cars would handle. But we've heard numerous anecdotal tales which suggest that when properly maintained, high mileage shouldn't affect the handling of an early Prius.
We'd be neglecting our duties if we didn't take note of fuel-economy readings when looking at whether the first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid is a good used-car buy.
According to the EPA's adjusted fuel-economy ratings--it changed its fuel economy tests in 2007--the original Prius should get 41 mpg combined.
After a week and several hundred miles of driving on mixed roads and in mixed weather conditions, we recorded an average fuel economy of 48 UK mpg. Converted to U.S. figures, that's around 39.9 mpg.
We should note, however, that our fuel economy tests were highly unscientific. We simply reset the car's onboard fuel economy gauge, noting down the final figure at the end of the week.
Since many fuel-economy gauges tend to be optimistic, we'd guess our real-world fuel economy was closer to 39 mpg--still within 5 percent to the adjusted combined rating.
As Consumer Reports proved in 2011 with a more scientific fuel-economy study, the original Prius can deliver its original rated gas mileage even with 200,000 miles on the clock.
With examples of the original Toyota Prius sedan now under $5,000 on auction sites like eBay, there's never been a better time to buy one.
Toyota's very first hybrid -- and the world's first high-volume hybrid car -- is starting to become a collector's item.
Admittedly, the cabin feels dated -- and the driving experience isn't the best we've ever had -- but if you're looking for a frugal runabout, the original Prius can still prove a reliable vehicle.
As with any car of its age, there are known issues that should be watched for.
Aside from the original hybrid battery pack -- which can be replaced by Toyota dealers for a few thousand dollars -- original Prius sedans can suffer from a transmission failure which presents itself as a warning light on the dashboard.
To help spot the problem and learn about how much it costs to fix, we suggest you read this excellent post by San Francisco Hybrid specialists Luscious Garage.
Even our loaner car had what we suspect was the initial stages of transmission failure, although only displayed the dreaded temperature coolant light on day one.
As with any used car, a full service history and a second opinion from a Toyota specialist will help ensure you don't buy a bad example.
Do you have an original Toyota Prius? How many miles have you driven, and what sort of gas mileage do you get? Perhaps you have some more buying advice you'd like to share?
This story originally appeared at Green Car Reports
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