Toyota executives insist they never expected the hybrid Toyota Prius to be the success it has become.
"It wasn't pitched to be a home run. It wasn't supposed to be high-volume," says Bill Reinert, national manager of Toyota's advanced technology vehicle group. "We wanted it as advanced as possible, and sell 25,000 to 30,000 a year, and test the market."
Instead, the Prius, with its EPA combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 55 mpg, today virtually owns the market for hybrid models in the United States. More than 400,000 Priuses have been sold since 2000, most of them in the past three years.
The Prius originally was not supposed to be a hybrid-powered car. In 1993, Toyota's honorary chairman, Eiji Toyoda, created the G21 committee, with the mission of designing a global car for the 21st century. It would be a highly efficient, smartly packaged vehicle. Only after nearly a year of study did the idea of an alternative-fuel powertrain surface.
When the first-generation Prius started on the drawing board in the mid-1990s, it was virtually an experiment, a relatively modest effort to be seen "doing something" about the environment, says Chris Hostetter, 52, Toyota vice president of advanced product strategy and product planning.