The ’90s were a strange time for electric cars, in that they simultaneously existed but also weren’t really taken seriously or promoted by the manufacturers who built them. Aside from the well-known GM EV-1, you had the Toyota RAV4 EV, Chevrolet S-10 EV, Ford Ranger EV and Honda EV Plus, among others. They were typically powered by lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries, and often sold to corporate or government fleets.
The technology was still in its infancy and gas was cheap, so there wasn’t much of a desire from the public to understand electric cars, or even hybrids. Which is exactly why I find this description of the first-gen Toyota Prius from 1999's Gran Turismo 2 so fascinating.
For one, it’s like opening a textbook that’s decades out of date, and that’s always mildly entertaining. But you have to think that the game’s developer, Polyphony Digital, was doing a public service here by not only including the Prius in the game, but also explaining why it mattered to an audience of teens and 20-somethings that probably just wanted to drive Silvias or whatever.
At the time of GT2's release, the Prius had been on sale in Japan for two years, but it had yet to arrive in North America or many export markets. That wouldn’t happen until the following year. Like some cars in the game, then, getting to drive and read about the Prius was a preview of what was to come. Again, I can’t imagine it was one that many players bothered to seek out, but it was there if you happened upon it.
Earlier this week, I did exactly that. I was revisiting GT2 as I routinely do each year for whatever reason, and I noticed the Prius in the game. All of the current hype around EVs inspired me to take a peek at the car’s description, which was always one of Gran Turismo’s coolest nerdy features. I was satisfied with what I found. (Side note for the eagle-eyed, hardcore GT fans out there: Yes, that’s the race-modded Prius, which is not normally accessible in the game without a hack. Don’t let its looks fool you — it’s still agonizingly slow!)
“Is this the car of the future?” the info page immediately asks, before launching into a brief description of the environmental and torque-related advantages of electric vehicles. “But,” it warns, “unless there is a quantum leap in battery technology soon, battery-powered electric cars, with a range of less than 100 miles, will not be practical transportation.”
I find that conclusion funny, because some current electric cars don’t go much beyond the 100-mile mark. The Honda E’s range, for example, lands somewhere between 125 and 136 miles. The Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt didn’t crack 100 miles in their earliest incarnations, either. Not that any of those cars are a shining example of modern tech, of course; generally, I think electric vehicles wouldn’t have caught on with the mainstream if we didn’t start seeing increasing numbers of them land between 200 and 300 miles. Gran Turismo’s was a prescient prediction, but what constitutes enough range for “practical” transportation appears to be in constant flux.
Then we get to the nitty-gritty about what a hybrid vehicle is and how hybrids were viewed as a good halfway measure between fully internal combustion-powered and fully electric cars. The Prius is described as “deceptively quick” on account of its torque and lack of engine noise at low speeds. But I think my favorite part is the summation of how the Prius isn’t like other Toyotas. “It’s a front-wheel drive car with a difference.”
What a tagline. Toyota should have used it to market the Prius, so I couldn’t help myself from imagining what that’d look like:
From this description, we learn about things like regenerative braking and smooth engine shutdown and startup — two pillars of hybrid vehicles that are quaint by today’s standards of course, but important innovations in their time. Toyota was clearly on the leading edge of this stuff, which makes the company’s reluctance to embrace EVs today all the more perplexing.
We end on a sunny note:
The Toyota Prius is smooth, clean, quiet, quick enough for normal everyday use. If this is the future, even auto enthusiasts should be happy.
Just as delightful as it is grossly misrepresentative of most auto enthusiasts’ willingness to embrace change. Oh, what I’d do for a hit of that millennial optimism!