The case for the first-gen Prius
People might scoff if you tell them you’re buying a 17-year old Toyota Prius. If they can even identify one, that is.
While the Toyota Prius has since earned its place in the annals of automotive and pop culture history, the first-gen model looked nothing like the wedge-shaped hatchback that people think of today. Instead, it was a small sedan that looked like the Echo and was only available in the U.S. from 2000 to 2003.
A fair number of those are still on the road today—Toyota doesn’t know how many since its estimates only go back 10 years—but you don’t have to spend too much time looking in the right places to spot one.
Shawn McDermed of Grand Rapids, Michigan, bought his used first-gen Prius just a few years ago, paying less than $2000, after repairs, for a car that gets him about 30 miles per gallon. That’s low, he admits, but he knows that the battery—which he repaired himself using how-to videos on YouTube—still needs work. The current value of a drivable Gen1 Prius is around $1500, with cars in pristine condition and a good battery going for around $2500.
The Prius was Toyota’s first gas-electric hybrid and used a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with a high-torque electric motor and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack stuffed behind the rear seats. Toyota sold 52,171 units in the U.S.
When the first Prius was launched, its EPA window sticker said it got 48 combined miles per gallon (52 city, 45 highway). Under today’s test methodology, it has been re-rated at 41 combined (42 city, 41 highway), but whatever the official figures are, McDermed says it’s the perfect car for his high-mileage job. He puts more than 200 miles a week on his car, and even with the IRS mileage rate of 53.5 cents per mile, he didn’t want that much wear and tear on an expensive vehicle.
“After five years of running around from store to store to store, I’m of the opinion no amount of mileage or reimbursement is worth destroying my car,” he says. “When I’m working, I think it’s very comfortable. I guess I can drive along on self-satisfaction. I just like it. I just really like it.”
Paul Guzyk also buys a lot of Gen1 Priuses, even—or especially—if they’re not in working condition. As the owner of Boulder Hybrids, a hybrid and electric vehicle repair shop in Colorado, he is the go-to guy for early Prius repairs in the area. It’s gotten to the point that when local tow-truck drivers impound a first-gen Prius, they call him first before the insurance company. He says he has around 10 parts cars out behind his shop to serve the “many dozens” of customers who still bring in their Gen1s for upkeep.
One of them is Phil von Hake, who says he was one of the first people in the Denver area to buy a Prius when he drove it off the lot in November 2000. One reason he keeps driving it after 200,000 miles is because it’s a low-maintenance machine.
“With previous cars, going to a shop would be like going to confession, and always learning of more work needed than I thought,” he says. “With my Prius, however, I’d come in with the same level of contrition, and then get the ‘car is ready’ call in four hours or less. I’d ask if they even bothered to pop the hood, and they’d say, ‘We did, but these cars just don’t have many problems.'”
They’re not immune, though. In 2012, after 155,000 miles, all of van Hake’s warning lights came on and he learned that he would need a new battery.
“I’d been unemployed almost a year at the time, so I asked around to fellow Prius owners for cheaper options,” he says. “All of them, without exception, said to call Boulder Hybrids, and I soon found out why. Paul said he’d move my current battery’s computer into a refurbished battery, clean all the gunk out of my transmission, and guarantee all of this work for two years. It was probably the greatest news I’ve ever heard while fixing my car.”
Toyota doesn’t comment on repair request data, but Guzyk says it’s still relatively easy to fix first-gen Priuses. Toyota still makes new batteries for the cars, and that’s one of the main problems that needs addressing. He says the engines are bulletproof and the suspension holds up well. “If you have an independent shop near you, you can keep them going cheaply.”
Driving his Prius has changed the way von Hake lives his life. He takes the bus to work at least two days a week, rides his bike, and carpools.
“I’m proud of having driven solo to work less than 10–20 times in nearly six years,” he says. “I remember my dad buying a new car every five years or so, and I was starting to fall into that habit myself. I have many personal and professional attachments to my ’01 Prius that might make it the last car I ever own.”
Richard Williams, another of Guzyk’s customers, says he bought his 2003 Prius from his dad, who had purchased it new. His only major issue was replacing the inverter after the cooling mechanism overheated. His power steering fails sometimes in the summer, but he’s more than happy with the 15-year old hybrid.
“The car is peppy, and easy to drive in snow, wind and rain,” he says. “It still gets 43.8 mpg and I can beat most cars off the line.”
Repair shop owner Guzyk thinks there’s still time for new old Prius fans to discover these early hybrids.
“The Gen1 is getting a little old, but there is a passionate community out there. Because they have dropped in value, a lot of tinkerers or home enthusiasts who want a cheap car and want to learn about hybrid technology are buying the Gen1s. You can buy a broken Gen1 for $300–$500. It may need a battery or a transmission, but if you’ve got the inclination to fix it, a lot of the information is on the Internet. There are plenty of parts out there still. They’re not sexy, but it’s really satisfying driving a car that gets 45–50 miles per gallon.”